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Engaging with Industry

Posted by CS Magazine on April 6, 2015 in Research, News

Originally shared in the Spring 2015 CS Magazine.

Industry partners gain access to the unique knowledge and expertise of researchers in order to solve problems relevant to their organization. Researchers apply their knowledge to real-world problems while staying abreast with current technologies used within the private sector. Students and postdocs gain exposure to problems with a practical significance, which often becomes part of their thesis work – and connections are made within industry that can lead to future employment.

Agencies fund collaborations like this to enhance graduate and undergraduate research programs – and to ultimately make a positive impact on the Canadian economy. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) is the most prominent agency Industrial research collaborations in computer science.

The NSERC Engage Grant is one of their most popular funding programs, offering up to $25,000 for a maximum period of six months with the intention of fostering the development of new research partnerships.

How it works

Industry partners provide a problem and academic partners provide the researchers. Typically, the Engage Grant pays a stipend for a graduate student or postdoctoral researcher, under the guidance of a supervising professor.

As part of each agreement, companies are expected to provide an in-kind contribution. This often translates to a staff member working closely with the academic team on the project.

The Engage Grant project is a well defined and complete project on its own, but can also be seen as a stepping-stone towards a more intensive research collaboration. NSERC has other funding programs that support longer-term projects.

Sample Partnerships

The Faculty of Computer Science has experienced productive partnerships through 36 grants for a total revenue of $804,000 through the Engage Grant program over the past five years.

iWave Information Systems Inc.

iWave Informations Systems Inc. is a Charlottetown-based company that has provided prospect research services to international fundraising professionals for over 20 years through their webbased Prospect Research Online (PRO) system. This system was out-dated, lacking logic mechanisms for information integration and data analysis functionalities. Users were spending too much time manually assessing individual records produced by the system. These shortcomings were affecting the product’s competitiveness.

To transform their PRO into a more comprehensive information system, iWave worked with Dr. Qigang Gao to develop a project plan using an Engage Grant. The plan was to develop a logicbased information integration framework for combining data from a variety of information sources and to identify best data mining strategies and modules to transform useful patterns into proper rules and rating predictors to generate quality prospect leads. Dr. Gao’s expertise in logic based information integration, data cleaning and reconciliation, and data mining made this a very fitting partnership.

“My role was mainly as the project supervisor/team leader,” says Dr. Gao. “The real work was carried out by two excellent graduate students: MEC student Colin Conrad and MCS student Naureen Al. The project achieved its proposed goal and the final result was well received by iWave.”

“We [also] gained valuable insights into possible future directions we would like to take our product and services,” notes Mark MacBeth of iWave at the conclusion of their work together.

Pleiades Robotics

Pleiades Robotics is the Halifax-based company behind Spiri – a personal, programmable flying robot. Pleiades teamed up with researcher, Dr. Thomas Trappenberg to make some enhancements to Spiri.

“We were working on some adaptive tracking algorithms in my lab – on mobile robots and on drones,” says Dr. Trappenberg. “After talking with Pleiades, we realized that adapting some of our research to their system might be quite a useful first step to help them advance some of their applications.” The team put a proposal together and MCS student Vignesh Babu and alumnus Rohan Bhargava got to work. The result of this project will allow Spiri to follow its user – or anything else – using only machine vision. “The demand for this in the market has been demonstrated by a variety of “follow-me” drones – notably AirDog and HexoPlus – which both garnered substantial crowd-funding interest last year,” explains Paul Edwards-Daugherty of Pleiades. “These robots, however, require the user to carry a beacon. Spiri will be able to follow anything, relying only on its cameras.”

With the fusion of vision algorithms and the already established stereo camera system, simulations have shown that great improvements to the following and tracking precision are possible. Spiri will be able to maintain a safe and steady distance from its owner – or whatever it might be following, enabling this to be useful in robotized workplaces and in the consumer market.

“Although the work is still ongoing, we already think that it was a great success in that it shows a lot of other potential developments for the Spiri system,” says Dr. Trappenberg.

Innovatia Inc.

Innovatia Inc. of Saint John, New Brunswick is a software company that provides knowledge management services to its clients around the world. Part of their core service offering is the authoring of technical documentation.

Technical writing in professional environments for things like user manual authoring for new products is a task that heavily relies on the reuse of content. Technical content is typically created following a strategy where modular units of text have references to each other. One of the main challenges faced by these authors is how to avoid duplications of existing content.

To improve Innovatia’s systems, they teamed up with Dr. Evangelos Milios and his associates, Dr. Axel Soto, Dr. Aminul Islam, Dr. Abdul Moh’d, and Brazilian collaborators Prof. Rosane Minghim and Prof. Cristina Oliveira. Their experience in natural language processing, text mining, document clustering, and text visualization has led to the design and implementation of a tool that helps technical authors understand the differences in a collection of documentation text fragments and identify opportunities for reuse. Using this tool significantlyimproves efficiency.

After the successful completion of the original six-month Engage project, Innovatia is proceeding with Engage Plus, a program that requires the industry partner to contribute half of the funding for the research project. The academic team is currently working closely with Innovatia to evaluate the interactive tool and measures its impact on author efficiency. A jointly authored publication describing this joint research will appear in the ACM Symposium on Document Engineering in September.

All of these projects start with simplebeginnings – a phone call, an email, or a conversation about possibilities. To build a project, all that is needed is an identified and defined challenge that can lead to a research plan that benefits everyone involved.