Industry-Sponsored Research Week
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U of Toronto start-up accelerator also offers ‘research for hire’ to larger corporations

By David Schwartz
Published: September 5th, 2017

In addition to launching start-ups, the Impact Centre, one of several entrepreneurship and commercialization hubs at the University of Toronto, functions as a for-hire research and development lab that helps established corporations develop, prototype, and test new products.

The fee-for-service offerings got their start when lighting and signage firm Allanson International ran into issues with an LED lamp for commercial kitchens. Along with seeking a solution from its internal R&D division, the Toronto-based company also sought out the extensive multidisciplinary expertise available through the Impact Centre.

Allanson’s trouble was with a new LED fixture designed for restaurant vent hoods, which had a tendency to crack. “They came to us with a lighting problem, but I quickly realized this was in fact a heat transfer problem,” says Venkat Venkataramanan, who is the Impact Centre’s scientific director and the founder of Lumentra, a company that provides testing and measuring services for the lighting industry.

Venkataramanan asked Professor Thomas Coyle in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering to help the company. Coyle, in turn, secured a grant, hired a student research assistant and a few months later isolated the issue to the interface between the light’s metal and glass components – and solved Allanson’s problem. 

That was six years ago. The Impact Centre has since worked with Allanson, which generates about $30 million in sales annually, to develop an LED replacement for fluorescent back-lit displays and is currently co-operating with the firm to develop a retrofit LED light for kitchen canopies.

Over the past year, the Impact Centre has also worked with nearly two dozen other companies in industries ranging from transportation to clean tech. 

“They have capabilities that we don’t have,” explains Faiek Dabiet, Allanson’s chief technology officer when asked why the company first opted to tap into U of T’s expertise instead of relying on its own research and development lab. “They have experts in different fields who have very deep knowledge of the subjects.” 

These commercial arrangements are beneficial for the university, too. Venkataramanan says U of T’s researchers benefit from the opportunity to work on real-world problems, thereby helping to guide their investigations. Budding entrepreneurs, meanwhile, benefit from being exposed to the industries that they’re looking to tap into with new products and services, and students gain from employment opportunities with the involved companies. 

Though the Impact Centre bills itself as the only independent hub on U of T’s campus that mixes entrepreneurship, industry partnerships and student training, at least one of the university’s eight other entrepreneurship hubs is considering adding a similar corporate partnership element to the mix.

“Although we currently do not have any corporate partners, we are working towards this for the upcoming years,” says Mimi Hao of the Entrepreneurship Hatchery.

Dabiet predicts such corporate-academic partnerships will become increasingly critical to drive innovation and grow the Canadian economy. “Look at what’s happening in the rest of the world,” he says. “Being educated in Europe, I saw the benefits of collaboration to the industry as well to the local communities.”

Source: U of T news

Posted under: Industry-Sponsored Research Week

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