Being competitive in today’s fast-paced, technology-driven world can be challenging even for the savviest business. But an Alberta post-secondary institution is partnering with industry to inspire innovation and help industry leaders succeed.

The Northern Alberta Institute of Technology’s (NAIT) Industry Solutions provide services to help businesses in western Canada and beyond, navigate their problems and discover innovative solutions, assisting them to be globally competitive. “NAIT has a long history of working with industry. The idea for Industry Solutions started about three years ago when we asked ourselves how we could build on this relationship and further integrate and engage with industry,” says Chris Dambrowitz, NAIT’s Associate Vice President of Research and Innovation. “We’re not just an educational institution — there are different ways we can interact with industry and applied research is a big part of that.”

Dambrowitz adds that the pace of change is driving the competitive shift for business. He cites the resource sector as one that has been able to pursue profit and economic sustainability, now finding ways to implement clean technology and other operational efficiencies to remain globally competitive.

“In our Centre for Boreal Research, we are working with the forestry and oil and gas sectors to help speed the recovery of the boreal forest,” he says. “Moving the rate of ecological recovery of a well pad from 10 or 15 years to seven will not only have massive environmental benefits, but also economic ones.”

A better bottom line and a legacy of environmental sustainability

At the heart of NAIT’s Industry Solutions is the newly opened 190,000 sq. ft Productivity and Innovation Centre, which will help cultivate business and product innovation. “Through applied research, we are able to support companies in solving technical problems,” says Paolo Mussone, NAIT’s Applied Bio/Nanotechnology Industrial Research Chair. “Our industry-driven applied research is designed to move early stage discovery into implementation, helping industry commercialize a concept or product.”

Operational efficiency and environmental sustainability are no longer seen as competing objectives. They go hand in hand, and Mussone says when a company is more efficient with its resources and operations, it will be more environmentally sound. “I can’t overstate how important this is, because for many industries, including forestry, oil and gas, and construction, the social license to operate won’t be there if we don’t encourage innovation.”

Mussone says one promising example of NAIT’s industry partnerships is the discovery of a natural solution for the reclamation of oil sands tailing ponds. While there has been a lot of scientific research  focused on encouraging plant growth on the tailings, NAIT was approached by several companies to find a solution that wouldn’t involve synthetic chemicals.

“Our research showed that we could promote the growth of plants native to the Boreal region with special fertilizer on the tailing ponds,” says Mussone. “We began this study by testing the concept at NAIT’s Centre for Boreal Research greenhouse. There is real potential to be a commercially-viable solution to what is a difficult business and environmental challenge.”

Collaboration pays off

NAIT’s collaborative approach includes industry in the design stage of every project and brings together an interdisciplinary team of experts. Each project is customizable, with different solutions. “If we didn’t exist, technology urgently needed in industry wouldn’t be developed or it would be developed more slowly”, says Mussone. “Our Industry Solutions are a vehicle to grow local companies and contribute to innovative outcomes.”

Mussone adds that all of the projects are assessed for commercial potential. While some concepts won’t be commercially viable, they still provide immense value because they prevent companies from wasting resources on ideas and processes that have little impact.

Dambrowitz adds that NAIT wants to be integrated into individual businesses' supply chain just like any other supplier. “The companies we are working with are looking to create a culture of industrial innovation,” he says. “While it won’t be easy, I’m convinced that in little more than a decade they will be global leaders. Some are already seeing the future and driving the change.”