One focus of my research group’s efforts over the past 10 years has been collaborative R&D with small and start-up companies. They often have some very interesting ideas and needs, but lack the facilities and technical team to do the work in-house. So this is a perfect opportunity for us to help them out with creating new businesses and for my students to get some “real-world” research experience with commercialization projects.
One major effort has been in the development of nanotechnology for rapid water quality testing, in particular for bacterial contamination. Traditional laboratory methods require 3 to 7 days to complete, which is a rather long time to wait if you’re concerned about your water quality. Through our collaborative R&D projects, we’ve developed a test method that can give an answer in a few minutes. This rapid feedback allows people to make informed decisions about what to do next, whether to treat the water further, or send samples to a lab for more extensive testing, etc.
Prototype ExactBlue water testing system.
One recent development is the creation of a more automated, smart-phone based system that’s suitable for regular consumer use. A prototype model is shown in the photograph. We’ve been testing the prototype devices with our nanotechnology-based reagent (which goes into the test tube), and doing validation and calibration work. Everything is looking good and everyone has been pleased with the results. It’s reliably and quickly detecting microbial contamination in our water samples, and there are some other water tests under development that will be able to use the same platform.
To get to the next stage, which is production of the first batch of devices for sale, the company has just launched a Kickstarter campaign. Have a look at their Kickstarter website to see much more information about the technology and where they are headed.
(Follow the link below for a couple of interesting stories about fourth year design projects in mechanical and nanotechnology engineering.)
With a deadline approaching to commit to their fourth-year Capstone Design project, friends Phil Cooper and Michael Phillips were torn between two ideas: one of them relatively straightforward and the other extremely ambitious. They were still undecided when they went to listen to Chamath Palihapitiya, the celebrated Silicon Valley venture capitalist and Waterloo Engineering alumnus, as he urged students to set aside their fear of failure during an appearance on campus in September. That was it, the inspiration they needed to go for it instead of playing it safe.
Source: Engineering student design teams win $50,000 each to launch startups
It’s that time of year when senior, final-year students complete and present their “capstone design projects”. These are group design projects, usually based on industry problems or student innovation ideas. The projects are meant to be completely open-ended (i.e. there is no obvious, single, correct solution) and require students to pull together concepts from a variety of topics they have learned over the years. The projects are not assigned, it is up to the student groups to come up with ideas, either on their own or through faculty or industry connections. This is where co-op education really helps, because most of our students already have pretty good ideas based on what they have seen in their 2 years of work experience during university.
The design project results are presented in “Design Symposia” for each program, and there is a website which lists the dates in mid to late March. These are open to the public, so anyone can drop by and see what’s up. By clicking on each program, you can also find a brief description about each project. For example, here is a list of projects in my department, Chemical Engineering. I highly recommend that high school applicants and future prospects take a look at all these program listings. These are the best source of information on all the different types of things that students can do, and the wide range may surprise you. For example, many people think that Chemical Engineering is just about oil & gas, but when you look at the list you’ll see electric vehicle batteries, rooftop greenhouse design, biodegradable orthopedic implants, and controlled release antibiotics, among many other things. Anything that involves materials and energy transformations is a possible chemical engineering project.
I like looking at the Management Engineering projects too. These projects nicely emphasize that Management Engineering is not a business program (a frequent misconception with some applicants), but it is an engineering program full of math, statistical and data analysis, and optimization. The project on “Reducing Distribution Costs for Canadian Blood Services” looks quite interesting to me (stochastic modelling is always interesting!).
I haven’t had a chance to look through all the different programs and their projects yet, but I’m sure a few will soon end up as start-up companies, if they haven’t already. These capstone design projects have probably been the biggest single source of Waterloo start-ups in the last decade, I suspect. There are now quite a few sources of financial support and design awards for the most innovative of these projects, as listed on the webpage, together with the support offered through the Velocity entrepreneurship and Conrad BET Centre programs, and others.
There were a couple of unexpected mentions of Waterloo on the international stage recently. In the first one, our Prime Minister Trudeau used Waterloo as an example of Canadian creativity and innovation, at the World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland. A video clip from that part of his speech is below. The Prime Minister points to our high intellectual standards, focus on entrepreneurship, and diversity. (I should clarify that when he says that 50% of our graduate engineering students are international, he’s referring to our Masters and PhD students. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, we have only a bit less than 15% of our available undergraduate spaces available for visa students.)
In his speech, the Prime Minister refers to Sam Altman, President of Y Combinator, a Silicon Valley startup funder and mentoring program. Here is a video interview he did to explain why he is so interested in Waterloo students.
In another mention, British actress and UN Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson mentions the HeForShe IMPACT Scholarships Waterloo launched last year, in support of increasing math and engineering gender balance.
Overall, it’s always nice for universities to attract attention for good reasons.
Exciting news about the start of construction for our new building, as well as support for automotive research and education, design, and entrepreneurship.
The University of Waterloo breaks ground today on Engineering 7, an $88-million building that will feature some of the best engineering research and teaching facilities in the world.The ground-breaking event will take place on Thursday November 12, at 1:30 pm at Engineering 5 on the University’s east campus.The new Engineering 7 (E7) facility will feature an additive manufacturing—or 3D printing—laboratory and an indoor flight arena for testing autonomous and robotic vehicles.It will also accommodate growth from Waterloo’s new biomedical engineering program and the expansion of the Faculty of Engineering’s highly popular mechatronics engineering program. It will house the Faculty’s new teaching innovation, the multidisciplinary Engineering Ideas Clinic™, where undergraduate students will integrate classroom theory with hands-on learning as they design, build, test and refine ideas.Part of the funding for E7 will come from the Educating the Engineer of the Future campaign, a $70-million fundraising effort that will help the Faculty of Engineering achieve its goal to become a world-class engineering school.Earlier this week, GM Canada announced $1 million in funding to support the Educating the Engineer of the Future campaign. This support will fund a Research Chair in advanced materials while also sponsoring Waterloo Engineering’s Capstone Design projects involving software development, which is key to GM Canada’s work on “the connected car.”E7 will also become the new home for the Conrad Business, Entrepreneurship and Technology Centre. It will have dedicated study and social spaces for students, lecture halls and entrepreneurial support areas, along with areas for student teams to prototype their Capstone Design projects.
Source: Thursday, November 12, 2015 | Daily Bulletin
There is some impression out there that “nanotechnology” (and our Nanotechnology Engineering program) is all very research-oriented, with no practical applications or career prospects yet. Graduates can only look forward to doing lab research or a PhD degree. Those are certainly potential paths, but not the only ones by any means.
Nanotechnology has been around for about 30 years (see it’s history). In many ways, it’s just a specialized way of approaching Materials Science/Engineering, and there are already over 1,500 products on the market that incorporate nanotechnology. Making products requires more than just lab research, and one of the reasons we launched our Nanotechnology Engineering program was in response to industry needs for people with this expertise.
It also seems that the nanotechnology area is one where there is a lot of room for innovation and entrepreneurship by our undergraduate students. Here are a few recent examples (mainly based on senior design projects) that have led to start-up companies:
It’s interesting to see what creative new ways that nanotechnology can be used to make new products or improve existing ones. In my own research lab we are working with companies to develop novel test methods, based on nanotechnology, for detection of water contamination, and this is on the verge of commercialization. Some day soon I’ll finish a post on that topic.
So for a high school student thinking about different career paths, don’t exclude Nanotechnology Engineering if you’re interested in materials and commercial product development. It’s not all theory, lab work, and graduate research.
An interesting article on the Waterloo area and start-up company activity in recent years, including the impact of Waterloo Engineering and co-op education.
Startup city: The high-tech fever reshaping Kitchener-Waterloo – The Globe and Mail.
There was a recent article in the New York Times about the panic and anxiety surrounding applicants trying to get into the “elite” U.S. schools like Stanford and Harvard. It contains this interesting little comment:
I also spoke with Sam Altman, the president of Y Combinator, one of the best-known providers of first-step seed money for tech start-ups. I asked him if any one school stood out in terms of students and graduates whose ideas took off. “Yes,” he responded, and I was sure of the name I’d hear next: Stanford. It’s his alma mater, though he left before he graduated, and it’s famous as a feeder of Silicon Valley success.
But this is what he said: “The University of Waterloo.” It’s a public school in the Canadian province of Ontario, and as of last summer, it was the source of eight proud ventures that Y Combinator had helped along. “To my chagrin,” Altman told me, “Stanford has not had a really great track record.”
Here is the link to the full article.
March is the season for “Capstone Design Project” presentations at Waterloo Engineering. These are events where groups of graduating students present and explain the design projects they have been working on for the past 8 to 12 months. Working on a significant, open-ended design project is a feature in all engineering programs in Waterloo and across Canada, to my knowledge. These “Design Symposia” are open to the public.
Where do the topics for these design projects come from? There are 3 typical sources: 1) some professors provide an idea, likely related to their ongoing research projects; 2) companies approach us with ideas that they would like someone to work on; 3) the student groups come up with their own ideas.
For companies, this is an opportunity to have some ideas explored in more detail and for free (other than some time spent). Many companies have some new ideas or side-projects that would be nice to do, but they don’t have the time or resources to follow-up on them right away. Having a student group work on it can help them scope-out the idea and see if it is worthwhile to pursue more aggressively in the future. For the students, they get more experience working on a real-world problem, possibly in an industry sector they want to learn more about. This can be a nice addition to the experience they already gained during their co-op work terms.
Student groups that come up with their own idea are often the source of new innovations and start-up companies that they build after graduation. At Waterloo, any novel idea that a student creates is owned by them. The university supports innovation and entrepreneurship, but doesn’t attempt to take it over in any way.
For high school students who are thinking about pursuing engineering, these projects are a good way to get a feeling for what you can do in the different disciplines. So check out these links for project titles or descriptions:
Civil, Environmental, Geological Engineering
Electrical & Computer Engineering
Systems Design Engineering
A couple of programs are missing their project lists, but will probably be updated in the coming days. See this link.