Setting an identity for a research group that spans six faculties, 18 departments and dozens of researchers is no easy feat, but that’s the first task Daniel Boyd set out to accomplish as director of Dal’s Institute for Research in Materials (IRM).
Dr. Boyd, a biomaterials professor who took the helm at IRM last summer, decided that looking back might be the key to creating a new sense of cohesion for the group as it enters its 14th year.
To that end, Dr. Boyd spent his first few months in the position working with the vice-president research’s office at Dal to take a closer look at the last half decade of research dollars IRM members have brought into the university and examine how those strengths line up with international priorities.
The verdict? The 50-some researchers that carry out day-to-day activity in materials research at Dal have brought in about $40 million or so in funding over the past half decade. That breaks down into three key areas of application: energy and sustainability ($18 million); resources and advanced manufacturing ($16 million); and health and life sciences ($7 million).
Dr. Boyd says those are roughly in line with the areas of strategic importance identified by the likes of the European Union and the U.S. National Science Foundation, which both see access to advanced materials as key to meeting the grand challenges of the next few decades.
“We don’t need evolutionary change in materials design; we need revolutionary change to satisfy the requirements of the 21st century,” says Dr. Boyd, echoing that sentiment.
Opportunity, opportunity, opportunity
Generally speaking, materials science is an interdisciplinary field that’s all about examining the structure, properties, and performance of existing and synthetic materials that make up the stuff in the world around us through the lens of both traditional sciences (biology, chemistry, etc.) and engineering.
Dr. Boyd joined Dal’s Faculty of Dentistry in 2010 after a five-year post-graduation stint in the private sector because it promised opportunities for just this kind of interdisciplinary collaboration with design scientists, engineers, and clinicians. He currently holds cross-appointments to the Department of Diagnostic Imaging and Interventional Radiology at Capital District Health Authority and to the Faculties of Medicine and Engineering at Dalhousie University.
Materials research is flourishing at Dal, especially in the area of advanced materials and clean technology (one of the university’s four priority research areas). At its core, Dal’s strength in materials research revolves around designing, synthesizing and characterizing materials and it is widely considered a global leader in that regard, says Dr. Boyd. One in four publications produced over the past five years in part by Dal's IRM researchers has gone on to be among the top 10 per cent cited worldwide, a number that he says showcases just how influential the university already is in the field.
Dr. Boyd also cites examples of innovations that have grown out of materials research at Dal and into startup companies: an injectable glass material used to treat spinal fractures (Covina Biomedical), a battery-testing system that enables electronics companies to develop longer-lasting cells (Novonix), and new processes for producing natural materials that can heal diabetic ulcers (DeCell Technologies).
IRM has and always will play a key role in operating and maintaining research equipment across the university, but Dr. Boyd says he’d like to see the focus shift a bit to make it more about creating that kind of innovation and entrepreneurial impact.
“When I think about IRM, I just think opportunity, opportunity, opportunity,” says Dr. Boyd, who has been involved in launching at least two startup firms (including the above-mentioned Covina Biomedical) that grew out of materials research at Dal. “It’s an opportunity to put Dal on the map, not just regionally and nationally, but internationally, by tackling some of these big scientific challenges that have been identified around the world.”
That means bolstering the institute’s efforts on a number of fronts through more strategic initiatives in education and training, the development of new processes and materials, facilitating knowledge transfer, and designing industrial applications.
To help bring a sense of order to it all, Dr. Boyd has reached out to those stakeholders across IRM, the university and beyond for input he’ll use to craft a five-year roadmap to grow materials research at the university. He’s spoken to individuals at early-stage venture fund Innovacorp and the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) as well as venture capital firms and angel investors across Canada, the U.S. and Europe for insights on how to enhance IRM’s impact.
Expanding the scope of research
Josef Zwanzinger, a materials specialist who joined the Department of Chemistry in 2003, says IRM has enabled him to collaborate much more easily with colleagues across faculties over the years.
While Dr. Zwanzinger is primarily known globally for his work in sustainable glass production, he says being a part of IRM has enabled him to branch out beyond his main interest to do projects involving concrete and metal alloys with researchers in engineering.
"It has helped me not be just a one-trick pony kind of guy," he says. "I'm really interested in materials much more broadly than that and IRM has given me a way to do that work and expand on it."
Dr. Zwanzinger — who has helped IRM manage and maintain equipment over the years — says he’d like to see the group expand upon existing collaborations with industrial partners and work to identify researchers at the university who could work together to commercialize research through the creation of new products or inventions that meet a broader need.
That perspective is music to Dr. Boyd’s ears.
“I grew up professionally in a culture where you have to understand your customers’ needs,” he says. “Our customers aren’t customers per se, but they are the stakeholders that needed IRM at this university to have a positive impact on our economy.”
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