It’s no wonder that Canadian industry is keen to find its way onto the country’s university campuses. For decades, Canada’s postsecondary institutions have accounted for a rapidly growing share of the country’s R&D activity – roughly 41 percent of the national total in 2019, according to Statistics Canada, worth nearly $15 billion.
Typically, however, industry players have encountered their academic counterparts as much by happenstance as by intent, says Mike Matheson, a managing director at the U15 Group of Canadian Research Universities. “They would do what most of us would: call someone they know, who might know someone else, who might know someone else, and hopefully at some point they find the right spot,” he says.
That’s why, in late 2019, Mr. Matheson, along with colleagues at the U15 institutions, began brainstorming ways to more purposefully bring together researchers and industry partners. Their solution has become a new online platform called Cognit.ca, of which Mr. Matheson is the managing director. It’s a one-stop shop which merges publicly available datasets – from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, as well as the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s Research Facilities Navigator – to make it simple to find research projects underway, and contact primary investigators and co-investigators, nationwide.
The functionality is simple: users type a search term into Cognit.ca, and the platform retrieves relevant projects and researchers, as well as a catalogue of licensing opportunities at Canadian postsecondary institutions, and a list of patents filed by researchers and institutions. Users can also search by a specific name, project title or institution.
“We surface the most relevant results to a specific term,” says Mr. Matheson, “so as to give users a sense of who they might want to make those first five calls to. Different keywords will generate slightly different results, but the results are clear.”
University of British Columbia president Santa Ono, who was involved in the project’s development along with other U15 leaders, says he hopes that Cognit.ca will not only better connect industry and researchers, but will help to ensure private-sector investment doesn’t needlessly migrate outside of Canada.
“It’s really unfortunate when corporate partners work with institutions in the U.S. or elsewhere,” he says, “when all of that often exists – and sometimes in more sophisticated form – in Canada itself. This is going to make it easier for partners to find that work.”
And, he adds, it represents an impressive collaborative effort, uniting the tri-council research funders, the U15 group, Universities Canada (publisher of University Affairs) and the Canada Foundation for Innovation. Additional assistance has come from Mitacs. “It’s rare for that many to rally behind one cause,” says Dr. Ono.
Focus on construction research
Cognit.ca’s most recent development is a collaboration with the Canadian Construction Association (CCA) on a construction R&D portal launched in October and designed specifically to showcase construction-related research.
“The construction industry here is lagging behind other countries, and has been for a long time in terms of adopting innovation,” says Mary Van Buren, CCA president. “There are a few reasons for that: one is that construction has low margins, and second, risk is shouldered by general contractors and trade contractors, so when bids come out, they tend to follow what has been prescribed by the owner. There hasn’t been much incentive to innovate.”
That’s in spite of advancements – in safety, engineering, esthetics and design overall – that innovation can spur. Ms. Van Buren cites the construction firm EllisDon, which has recently been working with the University of Toronto to develop a carbon accounting tool for use on building projects. Or there’s Carleton University’s Centre for Advanced Asphalt Research and Technology, which has developed new asphalt compaction technology for road paving, now being deployed by road contractor Tomlins Group.
“Part of CCA’s five-year plan is committed to advancing innovation,” says Ms. Van Buren, “and developing new tools to do that. This is one of the main pieces of that.”
“It’s early days, but we know business, government and non-profits have all been making use of the system,” says Mr. Matheson. “We know they’ve been using it to find other researchers who can help on multidisciplinary activities, and connect not just with industry but colleagues they may not have even been aware of. It’s becoming quite a remarkable database, and it’s just beginning to show us what it can do.”