Ralph Cilevitz has spent most of his career in the specialty-paper business, but he prefers to think of himself as a "serial inventor." Five years ago, Cilevitz hit on an idea for a small machine that could produce "void fill" for companies that routinely package items for shipping.
"Typically, companies use bubble wrap or Styrofoam peanuts for void fill, but those materials have to be purchased in large quantities, shipped to the end-user and replenished constantly," explains Cilevitz. "My machine allows the end-user to produce void fill as needed from paper."
Cilevitz built a rough prototype but shelved the project for lack of time and money. Then, in early 2011, a business acquaintance told him about a program at Durham College in Oshawa, Ont., that matches businesses and entrepreneurs with faculty experts and students to conduct applied research projects.
Durham College is one of 94 colleges and polytechnic institutions across the country that offer applied research services—an exploding segment of great interest to entrepreneurs. According to the Association of Canadian Community Colleges (ACCC), there were 4,380 project partnerships between ACCC member institutions and private-sector companies last year alone, up from just 515 in 2005. Those projects fell into 447 areas of specialization across industries.
Applied research projects can be taken on at any stage of product or process development, from proof of concept through product and process improvement, prototype design, piloting and demonstration, and finished product testing. The colleges benefit by being able to give students the opportunity to apply the theories and skills they are learning in the classroom to real-world challenges. However, colleges are careful to avoid simply providing companies with services that are readily available in the private sector. The goal, says Alex Zahavich, director of applied research and innovation services at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) in Calgary, is to find projects that "push the envelope" by attempting to create something entirely new or by making significant improvements to an existing product or process.
Cilevitz called Durham College and, within days, met with a small team of instructors and students from the college's School of Science and Engineering Technology. There, he laid out his vision for his void-fill machine.
"Once we get an idea of where the company wants to go with their project, we can figure out what kind of help they need and if there is a fit with our programs," explains Peter Forint, project manager and industrial liaison with Durham College's Office of Research, Service and Innovation.
It took the students at the college, working under the guidance of their instructors and with constant input from Cilevitz, about 16 weeks to produce the next-generation prototype of his void-fill machine. The project team had access to the college's full range of resources, including state-of-the-art computer design software and a full machine shop. Cilevitz communicated with the project leader almost daily throughout the process and had a face-to-face meeting with the research team at least once a week.
Cilevitz has since picked up an investor and is currently going through the patent process with his new prototype. "We are just now deciding whether or not to go to market with what we have or to go back and do one more refined version—and we would go back to the college to do that," Cilevitz says.
According to the ACCC, more than $153 million was invested in applied research projects at Canada's community colleges and polytechnic institutes in the year ended March 31, 2011. Money to fund these projects comes from a variety of sources, including federal and provincial government grant programs, foundations, community-service organizations and the companies involved.
Cilevitz's development project cost about $60,000, with government funding covering half the amount. Typically, colleges apply directly for funding to agencies at the federal and provincial levels. The company then has to match the funding raised for the project by the college—in cash, in kind or in time already invested.
Time was the main issue for Chris Ramgopal of Calgary-based Trilogy Environmental Systems Inc. He had spent a year designing a mobile water desalination and purification unit when the recent recession forced him to put the project on hold.
"By late 2010, the situation had improved, so I wanted to make up for lost time and advance the project aggressively, but I needed help to do that," says Ramgopal.
Through contacts in the construction industry, Ramgopal heard about SAIT's applied research program. He met with the director of the program and learned that SAIT had specialized equipment and faculty who had valuable experience in the water industry.
It took SAIT about a year to complete Ramgopal's market-ready prototype. He says he was deeply involved throughout the process, "mostly meeting on a weekly basis, but towards the latter part, it was almost on a daily basis."
Ramgopal is now in the process of shopping his completed desalination unit, which is housed in a standard, 48-foot shipping container, around his main target markets in the Middle East and India, where freshwater availability and quality are ongoing challenges. "You can just truck the container where you need it along the coast, throw the hose in the sea, and, within half an hour, you have drinking water—from 5,000 gallons a day to one million gallons a day," he explains.
Potential customers for Ramgopal's desalination unit include national, regional and municipal governments, as well as private industry. Ramgopal, who has been doing business in India, Dubai and Kuwait for 25 years, estimates the current global market for water desalination and purification to be around $500 billion annually.
With more than 1,000 campuses, Canada's community colleges and polytechnics are a readily accessible resource for small and medium-sized enterprises across the country, says James Knight, president and CEO of the ACCC. And given the fact that SMEs create more than 70% of the jobs in Canada, he believes applied research at these institutions has the potential to have a real impact on the economy.
"We believe we are onto something," says Knight. "We have been able to go from a modest level to a substantial level of activity in a very short time. But these are still early days; there are lots of businesses out there that could take advantage of this opportunity."