It took just four months for applied research students and faculty at Seneca College to move entrepreneur Michael Hoye's proposal for a new BlackBerry application from concept to market.
For Toronto-based Mill Pond Cannery and Preserves Company, it was less than a year "from idea to invoice" after the small start-up turned to George Brown College's culinary lab for help formulating its fruit butter products, Robert Luke, assistant vice-president of research and innovation at George Brown, said in an interview.
On the West Coast, staff and students in the commercialization assistance program at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) provide a suite of services. These include market research, product development, product testing and intellectual property research.
Among other benefits, James McCartney, research associate in business development at BCIT, credits the program with protecting inventors from "making poor business decisions."
Mr. McCartney said BCIT researchers can save entrepreneurs a lot of grief by determining up front whether there is actually a market for their products, or whether something similar has already been invented and is protected by an existing patent – before they go out on a limb and mortgage their homes.
"We [colleges and technical institutes]are known for applied learning anyway, but this is taking it one step further," said Mr. Luke, who is also research chair for Polytechnics Canada, an alliance of nine Canadian colleges and institutes of technology engaged in applied research and development in partnership with small-to-mid-sized enterprises in their regions.
The first thing Seneca students and faculty did for Mr. Hoye was help secure some federal research money. "You really do need a Sherpa to help you negotiate the grant process," said Mr. Hoye, founder of Toronto software company Bespoke I/O.
"That, in turn, let me hire a number of researchers and students and helped me build out this project very, very quickly."
Working out of labs at the college's Centre for the Development of Open Technology, Mr. Hoye and the Seneca team developed two products that are now on the market – an application that allows large organizations to customize Mozilla's Firefox web browser for internal use and Bespoke's new BerrySync BlackBerry application, which provides corporate users with secure access to their desktop web browsers and bookmarks when they are away from the office.
"To be able to go from a blank slate to shipping a software product at all, much less in four months [as was the case with BerrySync] is really a testament to the skill, the talent and just the general professionalism of the Seneca employees and students," he said.
In return, Mr. Hoye said he worked hard to ensure that it was a meaningful learning experience for the students. "I can't in good conscience, as an employer, take young kids in the prime of their developing intellectual lives and have them digging holes and filling them up again."
Seneca president David Agnew said the college's role is "is to get people career and job ready, and this is a terrific way to do it. It's real world.
"It's good for our students to work hand-in-hand with the person who had the inspiration and now is taking it through the value chain to commercialization," Mr. Agnew said.
The projects must align with Seneca's academic curriculum and also support the region's economic development priorities, said Michael McNamara, dean of applied research. "The prime focus is really on enhancing productivity, resolving commercial problems and taking new innovations from concept into the marketplace," Mr. McNamara said. "At the same time, our students get a really unique opportunity that helps them prepare for life after college."
The student experience includes the tangible satisfaction of actually helping to put a product such as Mill Pond's fruit butters on grocery store shelves and the opportunity to work in multi-disciplinary teams, said George Brown's Mr. Luke. In developing a food product, for instance, "you don't just need food expertise," he said. "You need some business students, as well as some graphic design students, and maybe some health students as well."
Another of George Brown College's business partners, MaryAnn Scandiffio, is about to hit the market with nutritional bars under the Square Snacks label. Ms. Scandiffio, a nutritionist and marketing specialist, worked with the college's students and faculty to enhance the flavour, source the ingredients and develop a formula suitable for mass production. "It was interesting, because the students are very creative problem-solvers, they have fantastic ideas and lots of energy. It's been a learning process all around."
Mr. Luke said roughly $40-million a year is now spent on applied research programs at Canadian colleges and institutes of technology. It gives small- to mid-sized enterprises access to research assistance and laboratory facilities they might not otherwise be able to afford, he said. "At the same time . . . they are helping to train our talent and are giving our students the opportunity to hit the workforce running."
George Brown students are also conducting applied research in the health care, fashion design, green technology, electronics, animation and education fields. While most of the work is aimed at commercialization, some of the research is devoted to social innovation – for instance, research with Toronto's Princess Margaret Hospital involving the creation of recipes for people recovering from cancer.
Seneca's projects "include everything from finance software to building a wheelchair to building prototypes for packaging, so just a whole range," Mr. Agnew said.
BCIT's commercialization assistance program also engages in product experimentation and packaging redesign, "which can result in increased sales in a minimal time frame – in one case, a 30 per cent boost was rapidly achieved," Mr. McCartney said.
Demand for the colleges' applied research services is growing as awareness spreads, Mr. Luke said.
"There's a lot going on in this space."