At the Industry Research Connections Session, Wed, Sept. 19, 2012 in St. John’s, more than ninety industry players came together to network for three very intense hours. On the podium one after another were representatives from nine local R&D companies and nineteen academic researchers from Memorial University and the College of the North Atlantic. They took three minutes each to profile their areas of expertise and to present their interests in research and technology commercialization. The session was sponsored by OceansAdvance in partnership with NSERC, IBRD, ACOA, and RDC

Among the observers at the session was Christopher Williams, a research engineer with the NRC, who came in search of partners in a project he is actively pursuing. Williams believes that, in the not-too-distant future, oil companies will be applying for exploration and production permits in marine Arctic environments under intact sea ice. As the research engineer in underwater vehicle projects for NRC in St. John’s, Williams is in the early stages of assembling a team and developing a full-time oil monitoring system using AUVs equipped with specialized sensors. According to him, those companies with his monitoring system in place, “can alleviate concerns of the regulators about the risk of undetected spills and leaks thereby improving the likelihood of getting the permits,” he says.

Williams came out of the session more convinced than ever that the solution to the sub-ice oil detection can be developed in this province. “We have the expertise and the experience to generate home grown solutions.”

Others at the session came away equally inspired. OceansAdvance caught up with four of the presenters after  the event. From the business sector we spoke with entrepreneurs Peter Gifford founder of Extreme Ocean Innovation and Sam Bromley, CTO for Whitecap Scientific. And from the research side were physicist Kristin Poduska, and mathematician Ronald Haynes. 

GETTING RESEARCHERS OUT OF THEIR CUBICLES

An associate Professor, with Mathematics and Statistics, Ronald Haynes (PhD) specializes in scientific computing, numerical analysis, and mathematical modeling. Among the practical applications of his skills is current work in the optimal placement and control of oil wells in the Newfoundland and Labrador offshore. In earlier work he applied similar techniques to find the best position for tidal turbines in the Bay of Fundy.

“This was my first time attending a session like this,” said Haynes “but I have done industrial work before,  and I always pay attention to anything that opens opportunities to work with industry. I’ve had good experiences in the past.” Haynes completed his undergraduate degree at MUN in 1996 before “emigrating” to BC to continue his studies, NS to work, only returning to MUN in 2009. Having been away so long he said the connector session was a great way to get some insight into research and development in the city and in the province.

“I think R&D here is a little more oil specific than in other places I’ve been, but there seems to be 

a lot of energy and, for the size of the place, there is a surprising amount of activity,” said Haynes, “not just on the industry side but on the faculty side as well. We don’t always have an opportunity

to interact with our colleagues, so an event like OceansNL connector gets us out of our cubicles 

and talking to each other–this is a very good thing,” said Haynes. He made notes and identified several industrial opportunities for possible graduate student internships. 

“I don’t always strike up a conversation right away.  I try to identify a student whose research 

skills and interests are a good match, then formulate a project with the company and see where it leads.”

BRINGING INNOVATORS INTO THE LIGHT

One of the companies at the session who would welcome such a match-up was Whitecap Scientific Corporation. Sam Bromley is CTO and co-founder of this young company with big dreams and a combined forty plus years of industry and academic experience in marine technology. Whitecap is working actively to commercialize their ROV3D, a trademarked 3D advanced vision system of technologies for the work-class ROV sector. Their goal is to introduce a visualization system that allows ROV pilots to work faster and safer, improving performance and competitiveness.

In his presentation to the Connections audience Bromley described their research and development interests as finding partners who can help them generate a combination of “robust and fast head-tracking algorithms under varying light conditions and finding ways to evaluate the usability and human kinetics factors associated with using their system.”

Contacted by telephone, Bromley said his decision to present at the connector session was based on his experience as an observer at a similar session in 2011 hosted by the Genesis Centre. “These sessions encourage the people who are interested in collaborating and partnering to show themselves,” he said.

A year later, Bromley felt there was an advantage for them to appear as a presenter. “Last year our business concept was hush hush, but now we are close to running our early-adopter prototypes. To that end there are a few areas of research where we would like to find partners to accelerate our development,” said Bromley.

Having seen the overlap between research interests and commercial developments at the session, Bromley now believes perhaps the university could also be looking to adopt research from commercial ventures in ongoing research. “The question should not only be ‘how can the academic researchers help industry?’ but also ‘How can business research help advance academic research?” he explained.  For example with existing visualization systems already developed in industry, perhaps Memorial University projects requiring visualization systems, could tap into locally available technology instead of having students or graduates duplicate what industry has already solved. “Then the student researchers can spend more of their valuable time working on problems not yet solved.”

NOT EVERY PROBLEM NEEDS AN ENGINEER

Another person with an interesting take on the advantages of industry and academic researchers working together was Kristin Poduska PhD, an associate professor with Memorial’s Physics & Physical Oceanography department. Right after the session she was off to Saskatoon where she was conducting experiments that required her attention around the clock for several days running. Responding via Skype her voice, though occasionally broken into bits, was enthusiastic

“I wanted to present because as a physicist I run into this challenge all the time: in oceanography in this province many in industry believe they need engineering solutions,” said Poduska, “But often there is a significant physics component to the problem and to the solutions required.” 

Her research involves the generation of thin layers of inorganic materials which have physical responses that they can fine tune. Applications include gas sensing and humidity sensing in extreme environments, hydrophobic and ice-phobic coatings, and luminescent coatings for color-controlled solid-state lighting. “A lot of what we do in our research is not application specific. My work for example applies across a broad spectrum of environments and materials from sensors on offshore rigs to collagen implants for potential medical applications,” said Poduska. “And, even though most of what I do it is so broadly applicable, it is nice to be looking for opportunities to apply science in a locally relevant way.” So the oceans connections are very useful to her.

Though she had only three minutes at the presentation to pitch her research interests Poduska placed a great deal of emphasis on the fact that students would play a key role in any research partnerships.

“Our primary task is to mentor students in research. Any time we have the opportunity to promote them to potential employers, which is our duty, we do” she said. “Many students in science PhD programs are not thinking about a career on the industry track so opportunities like the connector session give them a chance to glimpse the expertise that industry requires.”

“I’ve seen it again and again, not just in students raised in this province, but also from international students: many people want to stay here, all very talented people in physics, chemistry, engineering and applied science. The number that feel a strong pull to do that is unbelievable,” said Poduska. She believes that it is up to industry and the academic research professionals to help graduate students make the most of any opportunities to apply their skills to the research needs of existing companies.

LOCAL COLLABORATION FOR INTERNATIONAL SUCCESS

As founder and president of ExtremeOcean Innovation, Peter Gifford would welcome those graduate students with expertise in vessel hydrodynamics, active stability control, marine transfer systems, and payload dynamics. His company produced a vessel design for the seahorse-shaped TranSPAR with a draft of 10 metres. Their innovative design was selected from 450 proposals worldwide as one of thirteen winners in the Carbon Trust Offshore Wind Accelerator Access Competition.

“We are one hundred percent focused on TranSPAR at the moment. What we are developing is a technology for offshore wind turbine technicians to service turbines in a safer more robust vessel farther offshore in harsher weather than is possible today,” says Gifford, particularly for “Round 3” wind farms with up to 2,000 turbines in a cluster some 300 kilometres out to sea. Similar to offshore oil and gas accommodations the technical staff will be housed on a fixed offshore platform. “That is our target market,” said Gifford. 

He was interested in presenting at the session because they have already collaborated successfully with Oceanic, VMT (Virtual Marine technology) and the National Research Council to advance their technology. Gifford said “We are looking forward to working with graduate students at Memorial as we follow through the process.”

While the technology is a challenge, Gifford says their real challenge in the short term is to keep the financing in place because it is important to maintain forward momentum. 

“We are already focused on offshore wind with a strong network in the community to do that,” said Gifford. But in the long term they are looking at an unmanned version of the vessel and, according to Gifford, that is why connector sessions such as this one are so important. “It gives us a chance to explore opportunities and develop more local contacts in a shorter time than would otherwise be possible,” he said. Potential partners for such a venture might for example include radar technology from Rutter or underwater mapping from Marport.

Sam Bromley of Whitecap provided an interesting insight into one reason why the Industry Research Connections Session was able to attract such a large and influential group of presenters, observers and funding agencies. “There may be no direct payback,” he said, pausing for a moment, “but this session goes a long way towards helping you to feel like you are part of a research and development community where everyone is working together on something important.”

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MORE INFORMATION: Catherine Hogan, OceansAdvance Inc.,709-738-7059 ; email cathy.hogan@oceansadvance.net