Atlantic Universities have a long history of providing a positive impact in Atlantic Canada. The following profiled organizations and initiatives collaborate with government and industry, for the greater good of the region.

CLARI – food for thought, and on our tables

How do you build stronger communities in Nova Scotia? ‘One project at a time’ is the answer to the question, as the work of the Change Lab Action Research Initiative (CLARI) shows. CLARI fosters community-based action research: Community organizations generate project ideas, and CLARI teams them up with university professors and students who conduct research that matters in the real world.

Chris Atwood, the executive of CBDC Blue Water, brought the issue of food security – and the future of Nova Scotia’s agriculture sector – to CLARI’s attention in 2019. He teamed up with Claudia De Fuentes, an Associate Professor at the Sobey School of Business at Saint Mary’s University.

A range of challenges faced the agricultural sector when the research duo started their project. Land was going out of production. Farmers were getting older. Children often left farms instead of taking over family operations. Finally, immigrants with relevant skills and experience were not entering the agricultural sector.

After holding a series of meetings with industry groups, farmers and government officials, Atwood and De Fuentes were left with a major overarching question. Could immigrants help fill the gaps in the agrifood and agricultural industries? In phase two of their research, they will consult more widely with immigrant communities and organizations to better understand the impediments facing newcomers interested in agriculture.

For Atwood and de Fuentes, this work is crucial at a time of growing food insecurity, the root causes of which are not only inflation and homelessness, but also local production and manufacturing of food products.

Phillip Joy, a professor at Mount Saint Vincent University and Asif Khan, a researcher at Feed Nova Scotia, are also concerned about how we can put food on our tables at a challenging time. Specifically, they are researching the issue of food insecurity in the 2SLGBTQIA+ community. Joy and Kahn have just launched a CLARI project to gain “a more nuanced understanding” of the barriers to food security in this community by talking with the people directly effected.

As a result of that work, Khan and Joy hope to gain insights that can lead to the development of policies to address food insecurity in the 2SLGBTQIA+ community, and to better advocate on its behalf.

ACENET – The Little Research Engine that Grew, and Grew, and …

Atlantic Canada’s universities boast some of the best researchers in the world, in areas ranging from health care to marine sciences to artificial intelligence (AI).

But how do you keep the smartest and the brightest working at Atlantic Canada’s universities, none of which control the massive computing capacity required to conduct world-class research today?

ACENET is the answer to the question.

The organization started in 2003 as part of a collaborative project of five universities in the region.

Today, the organization boasts 15 members from the PSE sector in the region, and serves the research needs of more than 1,300 users involved in 400 academic and industry projects.

ACENET users have access to regional supercomputers as well as large national capacity through their partnership with the Digital Research Alliance of Canada. This gives StFX University researchers enough computing power to figure out how to make frozen-at-sea seafood taste like it was plucked fresh from the sea.

Springboard – a collaborator in the innovation economy

For almost 20 years, Springboard Atlantic has beendriving university and community college research partnerships and commercialization.

This is an important task in Canada, which is a laggard among OECD nations in Research and Development (R&D) spending and commercialization. About two decades ago, the region’s universities and colleges started a conversation with Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) about ways to address this challenge. A consensus was reached – in a small region like Atlantic Canada, the successful commercialization of research depends on sharing expertise and knowledge and collaborating on significant opportunities.

Springboard Atlantic was created to do just that. It addresses the innovation challenge by flowing research from its member institutions (15 universities and four community colleges).  Today, experts in each of the region’s post-secondary institutions help stakeholders interested in R&D to engage with the right academic research partners, source funding, and protect their intellectual property. 

Today, Springboard is taking a lead role in one major project to investigate the potential for manufacturing plant-based and alternative proteins in the region. This is one of the fastest growing food sectors in the world, and the current research project will determine the potential for development of the sector in Atlantic Canada.

Plant Protein Atlantic: Exploring the Value of Plant Proteins in the Atlantic Region is bringing together a number of collaborators, including Dalhousie University, the University of Prince Edward Island, Protein Industries Canada (PIC), and the Eastern Canada Oilseed Development Alliance (ECODA).  Springboard’s role, initially, was to provide seed funding for a foundational 2021 forum to the explore the value of plant proteins in the region. The Springboard representatives at Dalhousie’s Agricultural Campus also helped to organize the forum.

More broadly, Springboard’s 30 plus institutional representatives provide valuable expertise to businesses and organizations, and to post-secondary faculty and researchers as they work to solve real-world challenges.

And they’re working hard at the task of commercializing innovative research.

Over the past three years (and despite the pandemic), Springboard’s member institutions engaged with more that 8,700 industry and community partners, completed 2,000 technology transfer agreements with industry and community partners, and assisted in the launch of 386 new startups and spinoffs.

Since 2005, the Springboard model has proven its value, as the organization has helped facilitate the growth of a broad range of economic sectors in the region, including agriculture/agri-food, health/med-tech, clean-tech, aerospace and defense, and advanced manufacturing.

Where Genome Phenoms are Born

The idea sounds simple, but the science is complex: Unlock the genetic code of living things to (amongst other things) protect endangered North Atlantic Right Whales; grow taller, straighter trees; and help heart patients live longer, healthier lives. That’s just three areas of collaboration at Genome Atlantic, which works with industry partners and university researchers across Atlantic Canada. 

Today, Genome Atlantic is joining forces with scientists on both sides of the Canada-US border to protect the North Atlantic Right Whale. The endangered species is suffering due to low birth rates, vessel strikes and entanglements with fishing gear.  By working with government agencies, and scientists at Saint Mary’s University and the New England Aquarium, Genome Atlantic hopes to shed light on the low reproductive rate of the large marine mammal. Genetic research may well unlock the key to this puzzle. Researchers hope doing so will result in public policy which better protects this endangered species.

In Nova Scotia, a genetic breakthrough has resulted in a better way to grow trees. Researchers at Dalhousie University developed a SMART seedling from which perfect Christmas trees – tall, straight and proud – grow 80-90% of the time. Not a bad track record, says Jim DeLong, a veteran tree grower who used to send only 10 per cent of his harvest into the commercial market at Christmas.

Across the Cabot Strait, at Memorial University in St. John’s, researchers working on a Genome Atlantic project discovered the gene responsible for ARVC (Arrhythmogenic Right Cardiomyopathy), a deadly heart disease dubbed “The Newfoundland Curse” because of its prevalence in the province. The team’s discovery led to the development of a simple blood test for ARVC. Hundreds of high-risk patients were screened as a result; many of them were implanted with defibrillators and now live longer, healthier lives as a result.

Genome Atlantic also collaborates with research and industry partners in several other sectors of the Atlantic Canadian economy, ranging from aquaculture to energy to mining. In fulfilling its mission, this not-for-profit organization helps put this region on the map in the fast-growing field of applied genome-based R&D.

Read the full article: Atlantic Canada’s Universities: Collaboration that works for the region