Academic-industry research projects promote economic development

By Brian Cole
August 19, 2021

Innovation is key to economic development.

But small companies can sometimes find it difficult to access the kind of research support they need to turn their ideas into viable products and services.

This is where Research Manitoba can help.

The provincial agency has spent the last few years looking for new ways to better support research projects that will enhance innovation and economic development in the province.

One recent example is the Targeted Industry–Academic Partnership (TIAP).

Launched in 2019, the $275,000 program was designed to support local companies pending the outcome of efforts to partner with the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) on a similar joint initiative. Research Manitoba budgeted $275,000 for the program, which then was able to leverage an additional $246,682 from the industry partners.

“We really wanted to put together some kind of formal partnership with NSERC, but we weren’t able to do it for that fiscal year. So this program was kind of a precursor for a more long-term program with NSERC,” says Jennifer Cleary, Manager of Programs for Research Manitoba.

The bridge program targeted Manitoba’s key economic sectors: advanced manufacturing, bioscience, information and communication technologies, and infrastructure and transportation technologies. All told, 11 industry-academic research projects received funding under TIAP. Some are completed, while others are continuing to this day.

Earlier this year, the TIAP program was replaced by the NSERC Alliance – Research Manitoba Accelerate, Commercialize, Transform (ACT) program, which is jointly funded through Research Manitoba and the NSERC Alliance program. ACT, which launched in May 2021, has a budget of $200,000 for 2021 and is currently taking applications. Click here for more information.

Just as with TIAP, projects approved for funding under ACT are designed to help support Manitoba’s research talent and bolster the province’s economy.

While ACT has taken over where TIAP left off, a number of projects approved under the old program are still underway. Here is a brief status report on some of the projects approved under TIAP, along with their current status:

Research Partnership: Marolo Alfaro, Professor, Department of Civil Engineering University of Manitoba, and TREK Geotechnical Inc.

Piles are used to anchor various types of infrastructure, such as bridges, roadways and buildings. In certain areas of the country, piles, and the structures they support, can be subject to significant uplift forces associated with freezing of soil, thereby affecting the integrity of roads and bridges they support. In this project, Alfaro is using sophisticated laboratory test equipment and electronic field instrumentation of piles at the new Daly Overpass in Brandon to monitor the performance of piles in extreme conditions with a view to learning how to design more stable pile foundations for roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

Grant: $25,000
Status: The project is ongoing.

Research Partnership: Nazim Cicek, Professor, Department of Bio-systems Engineering, University of Manitoba, and Emerson Milling Inc.

A major by-product of oat processing are oat hulls, which are high in fibre, low in protein and have limited market value in their current form. But rather than letting them go to waste, Cicek and Emerson Milling Inc. partnered on a research project to determine whether oat hulls can be used for other products, such as animal feed. Doing so would provide the company with a new product line and eliminate the need for long term storage and disposal. 

Grant: $25,000
Status: The project has demonstrated that oat hulls, when combined with other agricultural by-products in a feed pellet, can meet basic cattle nutritional requirements of energy and crude protein. Specifically, the project found that if oat hulls made up 25 per cent of annual cattle feed, 40,000 head could consume Emerson Milling’s current oat hull production of 100 tonnes a day.

Research Partnership: Christopher Henry, Associate Professor, Department of Applied Computer Science, University of Winnipeg, and DecisionWorks Consulting

This research project is designed to test a method for predicting future financial client behaviour based on patterns contained in financial transactional data, including daily banking activities. The proposed work is an extension of 16 months of collaboration between the University of Winnipeg and DecisionWorks. This collaboration produced models that use transactional data, such as deposits, withdrawals, interest, loan, mortgages and various financial investments, to predict future client behaviour in terms of revenue, cost and margin. The goal of this project is to apply these models to predict the likelihood of losing clients within the wealth management sector.

Grant: $25,000
Status: The project is ongoing.

Research Partnership: Ngai Man (Carl) Ho, Associate Professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Manitoba, and RTDS Technologies Inc.

More people are expected to purchase more electric vehicles in the years ahead. And that means more people will need to tap into the electric grid to charge them. In this research project, Ngai Man (Carl) Ho tested a new method to virtually simulate a grid and multiple electric vehicle chargers, and connect the simulation to an actual electric vehicle charger for device testing. The idea was to create a practical and reliable platform to assess impacts when presenting chargers with faults such as voltage sags. The project will assist utility companies such as Manitoba Hydro in designing power grids that support electric vehicles. It will also help the manufacturers of electric vehicles evaluate the grid-connected behaviour of their products.

Grant: $25,000
Status: The project has been completed and a paper has been published showing that the new platform developed by Ho and his team can be used to simulate an electrical grid and multiple electric vehicle chargers. The team is now looking at how this platform can be used to help Manitoba Hydro better plan for the increased demand expect as Canada moves towards the electrification of private vehicles and public transit. 

Research Partnership: Fuji Jian, Assistant Professor, Department of Bio-systems Engineering, University of Manitoba, and All Natural Nutritional Products Inc.

The production of rutin, a high value nutraceutical, from buckwheat hay in Manitoba has the potential to be much less expensive compared to that produced from trees. Earlier research determined that harvested hay must be dried to less than 15 per cent moisture content and should be natural-air dried using ambient air to avoid a reduction of rutin. This project is designed to answer important questions concerning optimum conditions for drying hay. To complete this proposed project, natural-air drying (barn) tests will be conducted and a mathematical model will be developed. The weather data (Winnipeg in the last 30 years) and the developed model will establish the optimum natural-air drying conditions.

Grant: $25,000
Status: The project is ongoing.

Research Partnership: Athula Rajapakse, Professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Manitoba, and Solar Solutions Inc.

Remote communities in Manitoba rely heavily on diesel as their primary energy resource. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that the status-quo is no longer good enough. For one thing, climate change may make it difficult to haul fuel into remote communities, thereby undermining fuel supply security. And even if communities can access supplies, there are environmental impacts associated with fuel transportation, storage and emissions. As a result, energy planners are exploring more secure, economical and environmentally healthy approaches to supply Northern communities. Hybrid renewable energy systems, which incorporate local renewable energy sources and energy storage, have emerged as a viable solution. Solar photovoltaic generation with battery energy storage is emerging as the most viable configuration to complement the existing diesel generation. This project builds on earlier research designed to investigate the viability of hybrid renewable energy systems and foster research collaboration between the company and University of Manitoba.

Grant: $25,000
Status: Although there were some delays due to Covid-19 pandemic, the research is nearing completion. Algorithms to optimally control an isolated electricity grid consisting of two diesel generators, a solar photovoltaic system and a battery energy storage have been developed. Research is now in the final stage where real-time hardware-in-loop simulations are being performed to verify a controller that implement the developed algorithms. 

Research Partnership: Ahmed Shalaby, Professor, Department of Civil Engineering, University of Manitoba, and Winpak

Most waste plastic polymers are non-biodegradable and are a cause of water and soil pollution.  This research project is designed to look at the viability of recycling plastics for use in civil infrastructure (roads, embankments, foundations), as solid particles (replacement to stones) in earth structures, or as modifiers to asphalt and other elastomeric material.

Grant: $25,000
Status: The first phase of the project, which involved laboratory experiments, has been completed. The findings include guidelines for using various chemicals in the recycling process that will ultimately lead to the production of durable and stable polymer products. The research team is now proceeding with the second phase of the project, which involves field demonstrations to validate the research findings. 

Research Partnership: John Sorensen, Assistant Professor, Department of Chemistry, University of Manitoba, and KGS Group

Cereal grain crops such as wheat and barley are a central pillar of the economy in Manitoba. However, these crops suffer significant yield losses as a result of infection by pathogenic fungi. One of the major pathogens is Fusarium graminearum which causes fusarium head blight. Current strategies to limit growth of pathogenic fungi typically involve the application chemical fungicides such as the penflufen, which must be produced by chemical synthesis. There is a need, therefore, to develop alternatives to synthetic pesticides that are based on natural product. KGS Group has identified a strain of soil bacteria, named KGS-3, that appears to offer good protection against fungal infection in barley plants. This research project will identify the anti-fungal natural products that are produced by this novel soil bacteria and investigate the role these molecules have in crop protection. 

Grant: $25,000
Status: The project is ongoing.

Research Partnership: Douglas Thomson, Professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Manitoba and Vector Corrosion Technologies Ltd.

Concrete is one of the most widely used construction materials. In order to meet the strength requirements of most applications, steel in the form of rebar or cables is used to reinforce concrete. Most frequently, the cables are used under tension in pre-tensioned or post-tensioned structures. However, steel corrodes over time, and if the corrosion is sufficient the wires that make up the cable will begin to break, emitting acoustic pulses. Microphones attached to the structure can detect these acoustic pulses and track how many wires have broken. This research project will measure the critical characteristics of wire break sounds, such as amplitude and duration. Vector Inc. will use the results of this research to more precisely design acoustic wire break monitoring systems. The project has important implications since about 25 per cent of bridges in North America use pre- or post-tensioned concrete. This technology has great potential for enhancing the safety of bridges. In addition, this technology will contribute to keeping Vector on the leading edge of corrosion management.

Grant: $25,000
Status: The project is ongoing.

Brian Cole is a Winnipeg writer.