In early November, the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) based in Calgary received some good news.
For the third year in a row, SAIT-designed sleds would be used by members of the Canadian men's skeleton team at World Cup races, scheduled for Calgary later this month. Athletes with strong finishes at this event might qualify for the 2014 Winter Olympics and presumably bring their sleds with them.
If all goes according to plan, "you'll be seeing our prototype sleds on the podium at Sochi," says Dr. Alex Zahavich, director of applied research and innovation at SAIT Polytechnic.
The sleds – intended to be more comfortable and faster than existing skeleton sleds – are the end result of a partnership between SAIT and Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton, a racing body. SAIT-designed sleds also provide a made-in-Canada option for athletes who previously had to purchase their sleds from foreign companies.
SAIT has been one of the major beneficiaries of a funding upswing for applied research at Canadian colleges and polytechnics.
"Colleges are not trying to compete with universities. They are trying to complement them," says Ron Freedman, CEO of Research Infosource Inc., an R&D consulting firm based in Toronto. "They're not so interested in academic research that leads to publication … they are interested in practical, applied research that will help the prospects of an individual company or non-profit organization or government department."
In late October, Research Infosource published a first-of-its-kind report called Canada's Top 50 Research Colleges.
Compiled from survey data, the report placed SAIT at the top of the pack, with $9.75-million in applied research funding for fiscal year 2012 – a more than 270-per-cent increase from the previous fiscal year. Rounding out the top five were NAIT (the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology) at No. 2 with $6.33-million in funding in fiscal year 2012 (up from $4.95-million), the College of the North Atlantic in Newfoundland with $6.02-million in fiscal year 2012 (up from $3.35-million in 2011), Yukon College with $5.38-million in funding in fiscal year 2012 (up from $5.09-million in 2011), and the British Columbia Institute of Technology with $5.2-million in funding in fiscal 2012 (down from $6.08-million in 2011).
"Over the past few years, the federal government, in particular, has been investing a lot more money in college research ... so we thought it would be a good time to start tracking what's going on," Mr. Freedman says.
The response rate among colleges to Research's survey "was probably 90 per cent," he adds.
SAIT, for its part, does 30 to 50 applied research projects a year, involving 150 to 200 students, plus faculty and representatives of companies with which the school partners. Over the past five years, SAIT has done roughly 200 industry-driven applied research projects that have led to the development of more than 250 prototypes.
SAIT's applied research projects are grouped into specific categories, including RFID development, environmental technologies, green buildings, alternative energy, sports and wellness and sustainable culinary operations. All projects have to involve an industry partner and a practical focus.
To proponents of applied research, the advantages of such programs are self-evident: Students get hands-on experiential learning, companies get an injection of youthful expertise and energy, and government agencies get to fund promising research that might have widespread benefits.
For instance, in late 2010, SAIT was approached by Calgary desalination company Trilogy Environmental Systems Inc., for assistance in designing and building a so-called hybrid water desalination system (HWDS). While water desalination is nothing new, facilities dedicated to making saltwater drinkable are generally stationary. Trilogy, however, wanted to create a system that was energy efficient and portable enough to be easily transported.
With SAIT input, work on an HWDS prototype began in May, 2011, and was completed four months later. Tests were conducted using ocean water in Vancouver in February, 2012, then the system was officially unveiled in June of the same year.
Using a high-pressure reverse osmosis process, the HWDS is able to convert undrinkable ocean or seawater into fresh, potable water in less than 30 minutes. The system can process up to four million litres of drinking water in a single day – enough for nearly 50,000 people. On top of removing salt, the HWDS also filters out microbes and other impurities. Most significantly, the system can be housed in a 15-metre shipping container and moved from site to site.
Trilogy is marketing the HWDS in regions where clean drinking water is at a premium. Funding for the project came from Trilogy, the National Science and Research Council of Canada (NSERC), the National Research Council and SAIT.
Applied research funding doesn't just go to big colleges in large urban centres, as the top five finish for Yukon College in Whitehorse attests.
"We're doing quite a bit of work around climate change or varying climate ... [we've also been] mapping permafrost conditions" in various locales, says Clint Sawicki, director of research services at the Yukon Research Centre (YRC), which is run by Yukon College. The permafrost mapping is intended to give town planners and pipeline builders a clear idea of ground conditions, he explains.
Last year, the YRC partnered with the Yukon Energy Corporation, Northwestel and the Yukon Producers Group for projects involving, respectively, hydro security, the use of alternative energy at remote telecommunications sites and water treatment.
Toronto's Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology, No. 8 on the Top 50 Research Colleges list with $4.35-million in funding in fiscal 2012 (up 65.5 per cent from 2011), recently worked with Jana Laboratories Inc., in Aurora, Ont., on an innovative pipeline project.
"They came to us and said, 'Can we figure out a way to make these [plastic] pipes more durable?'" recalls James Watzke, dean of applied research and innovation at Seneca.
The project, which concluded in late 2012, received $45,000 in funding from the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario) plus $9,000 in cash and $13,500 worth of services from Jana.
"We came up with the protocols and helped build some of the machinery for them to test that wrapping technology, " says Dr. Watzke.
Colleges "have been doing [applied] research for many, many years … what's new is the recognition that they're an important force in this area. There is a willingness on the part of governments, particularly the federal government, to fund this kind of activity at colleges," notes Mr. Freedman.
BY THE NUMBERS
According to the Ottawa-based Association of Canadian Community Colleges (ACCC), 24,108 students took part in applied research at 103 colleges and institutes (including polytechnics) in 2011-2012. It's a substantial increase from 2008-2009 when 2,500 college students were similarly engaged.
Colleges and institutes received $216.02-million in applied research funding for 2011-2012, a big leap from 2008-2009 when that figure stood at $132-million.
Canadian colleges and institutes entered into 4,586 partnerships with companies in 2011-2012, up from 3,602 partnerships in 2008-2009. About 64 per cent of private-sector partnerships were with small and medium-sized companies, 28 per cent were with large ones and 8 per cent were with micro-enterprises.
Ottawa was the top investor in applied college research, providing $72-million in funding for 2011-2012, up from $27-million in 2008-2009. Private-sector companies were the second highest funders, with $59.4-million invested in 2011-2012, up from $45-million in 2008-2009. Provincial/territorial governments offered $44-million in applied research funding in 2011-2012, up from $25-million in 2008-2009.