Manufacturing AUTOMATION

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Program linking businesses with colleges proves itself


October 7, 2009
By Manufacturing AUTOMATION

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More than 2,000 Ontario college students successfully put their research and innovation skills into practice with about 400 small and medium-sized businesses across the province, thanks to a first-of-its-kind program connecting the two groups.
 
The unique Colleges Ontario Network for Industry Innovation (CONII) program, created in fall 2006, is now nearing the end of its three-year term. Thanks to a recent $10 million infusion from the Ontario government, however, and as a result of the proven success of the program — which to date has involved 10 top Ontario colleges along the technology corridor between Ottawa and Windsor — the initiative has been extended for another three years.
 
CONII colleges include Algonquin College in Ottawa, Conestoga College in Kitchener, Fanshawe College in London, Niagara College in Welland, Sheridan College in Oakville, St. Clair College in Windsor, and Centennial College, George Brown College, Humber College and Seneca College in Toronto.
 
“The success of the CONII has dramatically exceeded our expectations,” said Katharine Janzen, Chair of the CONII Steering Committee and Vice-President, Research and Innovation, at Toronto’s Seneca College. Janzen said that CONII organizers had originally anticipated the participation of little more than 100 students and companies – a small fraction of the actual number of participants.
 
Now, with an extended mandate, “CONII will be able to provide support to even more small and medium-sized businesses and increased opportunities for a greater number of Ontario students and researchers,” Janzen said. She explained that the uniqueness of the CONII program is that it offers businesses applied versus pure research, innovative technology and solutions of a commercial nature.
 
“CONII members work to solve problems or meet goals driven by our business partners, an approach referred to as ‘market pull,’” said Janzen, explaining that CONII’s mandate is to develop research projects with businesses that make effective use of faculty expertise, provide students with real-world learning opportunities, and ultimately have a positive economic impact on the province’s small business sector.
 
During the last three years, CONII has successfully helped small and mid-sized companies across Ontario solve technical problems faster, improve the efficiency of manufacturing processes, and move products and services to market more quickly. Projects have included designing more efficient light sources and alternative energy systems that reduce pack electricity usage, enhancing the use of laser technology in industry, and revolutionizing the three-dimensional and other interactive educational gaming experiences, all while making Ontario companies more productive and profitable in the process.
 
Spongelab Interactive, a Toronto-based educational game design and production company, for example, benefitted from the CONII program by working with two Centennial College students.  The company engaged students from different college departments – computer science and biology – to help further develop its technology and product offerings.  
 
“The student from computer science was instrumental in helping us build our game engine – custom-designed to produce and run educational games – and the biology student helped us develop the background research and storyline for our upcoming history game,” said Spongelab Interactive co-founder Jeremy Freidberg. “Both of these students were a tremendous asset in helping us to bring our products to market and each exhibited an amazing work ethic and a true passion for the work they did.”
 
Centennial College student Angela Ferrao, a biotechnology technologist who was involved in the project, explained that the real-world experience she gained working with Spongelab Interactive was invaluable. “CONII has helped me further develop my skills and expertise and has created an opportunity for me to bring my creative skills to fruition,” said Ferrao, explaining that the project – an educational game about the history of genomics and the scientists who contributed to the field – teaches students by having them participate in an innovative scavenger hunt. Her research was key in order to ensure that the game “not only emphasizes the scientist’s discovery, but also sheds light on the human side of the scientist, an aspect which is typically lost when learning about science,” she explained.
 
Etobicoke-based industrial bakery Give & Go Prepared Foods Corp. is another business that is reaping the benefits of the CONII program. The company turned to Humber College for help when it found itself drawing flour out of small silos so rapidly that they needed to be refilled twice a day. “Calculating the optimal time to reorder the flour became a logistical challenge and affected our production,” says Jerry Dover, Director of Engineering & Plant Services at Give & Go. Humber engaged students from various faculties to find the solution and this multi-disciplinary approach proved key to tackling the problem, which had both technical and production issues.
 
“Humber’s solution reflected our technical and business needs and gave the students the opportunity to apply their technical and problem-solving skills to the complex realities of a functioning industrial plant,” Dover said. “This represents a true win-win for Give & Go and Humber and is the springboard to more collaboration.”
 
By tapping into the knowledge and commercialization expertise of college students and faculty, businesses are able to further a research area or address a challenge for which they may not have in-house staff or expertise,” explained Len Crispino, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce.
 
“CONII is a creative and cost-effective resource for companies, enabling them to access the innovative research and development they need to position their businesses for growth,” added Crispino, an entrepreneur who himself successfully worked with CONII member Niagara College to increase the efficiency of his business.
 
CONII’s areas of focus include alternative energy, environmental technologies and construction, digital media, health and life sciences, hospitality and tourism, information and communication technologies, manufacturing and materials, and viticulture and agri-business. Each of the colleges linked by CONII has established an industry innovation centre to serve as a primary contact for business owners looking for assistance. The centres then put together the strongest team from its network of colleges for each particular company and business issue.
 
All businesses are welcome and encouraged to contact their local college for help with research, innovation, commercialization and access to project funding support.  The college will assist applicants in sourcing its most appropriate subject matter expert for their particular challenge or act as a conduit to source the required expertise from any of the other CONII colleges.
 
For more information about CONII and its member colleges, please visit www.conii.ca.