Brock Innovation and Commercialization – The Brock News A news source for Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario Thu, 21 Nov 2019 21:19:57 +0000 en-CA hourly 1 Student researcher explores future of electric buses in Canada Fri, 26 Apr 2019 19:42:53 +0000 It’s a simple, logical way to cut down on air and noise pollution.

Electric buses don’t emit carbon or use fossil fuels, are low cost to maintain and, by the silent way they operate, reduce noise pollution compared to conventional buses.

But replacing current buses with electricity-powered ones is easier said than done, says master’s student Tasnuva Afreen.

Afreen recently wrapped up an eight-month internship with the Canadian Urban Transit Research and Innovation Consortium (CUTRIC) to collect and interpret information related to transit authorities’ transition to electric buses.

“Now we’re trying to connect the dots,” says Afreen, who is in Brock’s Sustainability Science and Society program. “We hope to bring out what Canadians think of electric buses and identify the main barriers to bringing electric buses to transit authorities’ fleets.”

Afreen, Associate Professor of Geography and Tourism Studies Christopher Fullerton and CUTRIC created the internship through the not-for-profit national research organization Mitacs.

Mitacs partners with academics, private industry and governments to conduct research and training programs related to industrial and social innovation. The organization funds a number of research projects at Brock University.

During her internship, Afreen organized consultations with industry representatives, transit authorities, government officials and academic researchers.

She and her CUTRIC colleagues asked participants a series of questions about transit authorities’ experiences and challenges of experimenting with electric buses and the knowledge they need to acquire and integrate hydrogen fuel cell vehicles into their fleets.

Afreen also asked transit riders to share their opinions on and experiences with electric buses.

She then transcribed the consultation sessions and analyzed the comments. Afreen also gathered information on how to test electric buses in nine municipalities that expressed interest in becoming demonstration trial sites.

Although she and Fullerton are still analyzing the data, Afreen says her preliminary results show that there’s much interest in putting electric buses on the road.

But there are a number of barriers to overcome, she says.

“Municipalities have to redesign their infrastructure to provide electric lines so that buses can recharge very quickly,” says Afreen. “Also, the upfront expense is huge — a lot of transit agencies don’t have the money in their pocket to go for this.”

Fullerton, Afreen’s supervisor, says the research she conducted will lay the groundwork for CUTRIC’s efforts to encourage the adoption of electric buses across Canada.

“While it has already demonstrated clear environmental, social and economic benefits in other parts of the world, electric bus technology is still relatively new and adopting it represents a major funding commitment,” says Fullerton.

“Public transit agencies and other stakeholders, such as the various levels of government that provide subsidies for transit infrastructure, want to make sure that the technology is reliable and that their money is well spent,” he says, adding that Afreen’s work helps identify stakeholders’ concerns and information needs.

Afreen will share her Mitacs-supported internship experience at Brock’s Shift Conference Tuesday, April 30 and the Launch Forum Wednesday, May 1. Mitacs Director Rebecca Bourque and Office of Research Services staff will be join Afreen at Launch in the 10 to 11:30 a.m. session in the Cairns Atrium to explore how faculty member and graduate student teams can navigate Mitacs internship opportunities.

“Mitacs internships offer graduate students a valuable experience working with industry or community organizations,” says Industry Liaison and Partnership Officer Iva Bruhova. “It is a chance to apply their research skills and gain employment-ready skills.”

In addition to the Mitacs session, the Launch event offers two other sessions on how faculty and staff can support graduate students through designing individual development plans.

For more information, contact or

]]> Brock chemist sets up international bionanotechnology collaboration Fri, 19 Oct 2018 18:05:34 +0000 Feng Li is casting his nano-net wide.

The Brock University Assistant Professor of Chemistry is laying the groundwork for a partnership with the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics at the Chinese Academy of Science.

Li was there recently as a participant of the Ontario-China Young Scientist Exchange Program, a provincial government initiative aiming to develop international research and commercialization activities between Ontario and Chinese organizations.

The program is affiliated with the Ontario government’s Early Researcher Award, which Li received earlier this year for his research on the use of DNA nanotechnology to detect diseases.

Breakthrough developments through Li’s research include a microscopic robot that has the potential to identify drug resistance to tuberculosis faster than conventional tests, a paper-based device that can reveal the presence of illness from DNA samples, and a three-dimensional, microscopic nanomachine that can detect diseases in a blood sample within 30 minutes.

Li and his team also created a tool that can potentially be used in a future computer that will be made out of DNA. Their technique, called allosteric DNA toehold, has been integrated as a key component in one of the world’s most advanced DNA neural networks by the Qian lab at the California Institute of Technology.

During his three-week visit to China, Li worked in the laboratory of Professor Chunhai Fan, who has done breakthrough research in the areas of biosensing, biophotonics, and DNA nanotechnology and computation.

“I never knew him before, but I’d been reading a lot of his work, since he’s a very big name in my field,” says Li. “When I heard about this exchange program, his name came to my mind. I contacted him to see whether I could have the opportunity to visit his lab for a couple of weeks.”

Li’s initial research proposal centred on how to modify a sophisticated piece of an electrochemical sensor in Fan’s lab to be able to detect proteins, which would assist Li’s disease detection work.

But, once at the lab, Li became fascinated with Fan’s work on ‘DNA origami,’ a technique where long strands of DNA are folded into three-dimensional structures with different shapes.

Li learned to create nano-sized tubes that can potentially be injected into the body to enable targeted, efficient delivery of drugs.

As an example of how this would work, Li refers to the problem of chemotherapy killing healthy cells alongside cancerous ones.

“Imagine a box that you can load drugs into,” he says. “Those boxes would only open when there’s a cancer cell. Cancer cells have specific cell-surface proteins or lipids. You use these as a key to unlock the three-dimensional structure. Then you will only deliver drugs to cancer cells over the healthy cells.”

Li is also interested in using the DNA origami technique for diagnostic purposes. One example is the DNA Shape ID. Scientists in Fan’s lab created three-dimensional shapes out of DNA strands and paired these shapes with certain illnesses.

“They can label different diseases with different shapes, like a triangle or a square,” says Li. “The scientists use them to determine if the DNA bears mutations. It’s very cool how you can use DNA structures for diagnostic purposes.”

Li says he has set up a collaboration with researchers in his lab at Brock, Fan’s lab at the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics, and researchers at McMaster University.

Calling Li a “rising star in DNA nanotechnology,” Fan says he and Li “almost instantly found that we had a lot of mutual interests in research” when they met.

The Ontario-China Young Scientist Exchange Program was set up two years ago to develop long-term research collaborations between Ontario and Chinese institutions and to encourage the development of leadership skills among participants.

Li was among seven researchers province-wide to be accepted to the program this year.

]]> Niagara’s manufacturing sector still going strong, says Brock NCO research Thu, 27 Sep 2018 19:31:53 +0000 For those in Niagara who continue to mourn the decline of the region’s traditional manufacturing sector, Sean Calcott and Charles Conteh have some good news.

True, the sector is very different than it was 20 or 30 years ago and it has seen some tough times, says Conteh, Associate Professor of Political Science at Brock University and Director of the Niagara Community Observatory (NCO). “But the general trend is that manufacturing has been very resilient, has stayed in the region and, in fact, has seen an upswing since 2012, so there’s a bit of a wind in our sails,” he says. 

Conteh is co-author of the NCO’s latest policy brief, “Shifting Gears: Examining the recent upswing of Niagara’s manufacturing sector.” 

NCO manufacturing panel

Graduate student and policy brief co-author Sean Calcott joined panelists Mishka Balson, of the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce, Dolores Fabiano, of the South Niagara Chamber of Commerce, and Blake Landry, of Niagara Region, at a release event for the Niagara Community Observatory’s latest brief.

In their brief, Conteh and co-author Calcott, a recent master’s graduate in the Department of Political Science, examine Niagara’s recent economic history with fresh eyes, avoiding comparisons to the region of long ago.

“The strength of manufacturing in Niagara is not as visible to the naked eye as when large plants and factories were prominent in the sector,” says Calcott. “There is a multitude of small firms making diverse products that account for the bulk of the job growth in this sector.”

In the past six years, Niagara’s manufacturing sector has continued to be a main driver of job growth and economic development, says the brief.

It notes that, as of 2016, 243 manufacturing firms in Niagara exported goods totalling about $3.7 billion. Machinery, boilers, mechanical appliances, engines and parts accounted for about one-third of this total, with nickel, plastics, railway and tramway vehicles, parts and accessories also being significant exports. 

Across the sector, manufacturing employment increased by 2,075 jobs between 2012 and 2018.

The largest increases are in plastics and rubber products manufacturing (70 per cent), beverage and tobacco product manufacturing (44 per cent), chemical manufacturing (40 per cent) and transportation equipment manufacturing (23 per cent).

Niagara has moved away from the “large branch-plant model” typical of the previous century, with manufacturing jobs being concentrated in small-to-medium size firms (SMEs) with fewer than 500 employees, says the brief.

“SMEs present advantages over larger enterprises because their smaller footprint enables more risk-taking and innovation than firms which have invested greater resources into an established business model,” says the brief, adding that they can “adapt more quickly to changing market conditions.”

The brief points out one dark lining in an otherwise silver cloud: wages today are generally lower than they were in the manufacturing sector of the past.

“The middle-tier of manufacturing jobs are being displaced by lower-paying positions, while higher-paying managerial and supervisory positions are stable,” says the brief.

To address this challenge, the brief recommends building upon the tremendous strides in education and skills training being offered in the region’s post-secondary institutions that would see “more investment in specialized industrial skills in targeted labour-intensive manufacturing sectors.” 

The authors urge Niagara to align itself with the economies of Hamilton, the GTA and Buffalo. “This means building an integrated system of design and production nodes in a distributed network of interlocking supplier and customer firm relationships that spans the QEW industrial corridor and extends to the Buffalo market.”

It also calls for small and medium-sized entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, university and college researchers, economic development officials and others to come together to identify Niagara’s existing strengths and map out strategies to attract investment and build skills training. 

Conteh says the take-away message from the NCO’s latest research is that Niagara’s manufacturing sector still forms the bedrock of the economy despite earlier upheavals, and has a bright future. 

He says that when they started the research, he already had an “indication” of something positive happening, “but the compelling data gave us evidence beyond a shadow of a doubt that Niagara is resilient and has the adaptive capacity to weather storms.”

]]> Tiny robot could be game-changer in fight against tuberculosis Mon, 23 Jul 2018 18:16:57 +0000 A Brock University research team has created a microscopic robot that has the potential to identify drug resistance to tuberculosis faster than conventional tests.

The World Health Organization (WHO) calls tuberculosis drug resistance “a formidable obstacle” to treatment and prevention of a disease that killed 240,000 people in 2016.

The Brock team’s latest technology builds on an earlier version of the microscopic robot — called the three-dimensional DNA nanomachine — they created in 2016 to detect diseases in a blood sample within 30 minutes.

In this latest version, the team, headed by Assistant Professor of Chemistry Feng Li, re-designed the nanomachine so that it could uncover mutations in the genes found in the bacteria that causes tuberculosis.

Li says the nanomachine holds the potential to determine, within one hour, whether or not tuberculosis bacteria contain the genetic mutations that make them resistant to the basic, first-line drugs prescribed to fight tuberculosis.

The WHO says resistance occurs mostly because patients don’t adhere to the strict schedule of antibiotics they need to take to get cured. The bacterial cells’ genes change so that the bacteria can survive future exposures to the same antibiotics, which means a second-line treatment is then required.

It takes a while before health-care professionals and patients realize the first-line drugs aren’t working, which is why quick detection of drug resistance is so crucial, Li says.

“Once you confirm there is tuberculosis infection, you have to use the diagnosis to guide the therapeutic strategy,” he says. “Normal infection and drug-resistant strains require two completely different types of strategies.”

Li says current testing for resistance is an arduous, time-consuming process that can take anywhere from two to six weeks and requires high-level equipment and training. In the meantime, the disease worsens in patients, who can also pass the disease along to others.

Assistant Professor of Chemistry Feng Li (left) looks on as graduate students Alex Guan Wang (centre) and Yongya Li (right).

The Brock team’s nanomachine consists of a 20-nanometre particle made out of gold. Short and long DNA strands are attached to the gold particle and these DNA molecules are used as building blocks to construct and operate the nanomachine.

Graduate student Alex Guan Wang used a computer simulation model to design the long strands, which are able to seek out differences in nucleotides contained within the tuberculosis bacteria’s genes. A nucleotide is the basic structural unit and building block for DNA, and it’s within these that mutations caused by drug resistance would be found.

The short DNA strands attached to the nanomachine carry fluorescent signal reporters.

The nanomachine is dropped into serum extracted from human blood. If the long strands detect the mutations found in specific nucleotides, the machine turns on and glows; if the sample is disease-free, the robot remains off.

Graduate student Yongya Li conducted the lab experiments. She first started the research when she was an undergraduate student.

The team’s findings are contained in their paper “Simulation-guided engineering of an enzyme-powered three-dimensional DNA nanomachine for discriminating single nucleotide variants,” published June 30 in the journal Chemical Science. Feng Li and his collaborators also produced another research paper in the journal Analytical Chemistry, describing how to modify the nanomachine to detect diseases by examining a number of proteins in samples.

]]> Brock to play key role in new national grape and wine research cluster Wed, 04 Jul 2018 17:34:33 +0000 For the first time, the Canadian grape and wine industry is coming together with the goal of strengthening the sector in a sustainable way.

Canada’s Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, Lawrence MacAulay, announced Wednesday, July 4 a commitment of $8.4 million in funding to establish the Canadian Grape and Wine Science Cluster, a collaborative project which includes university researchers, grape growers and industry partners in Ontario, B.C., Quebec and Nova Scotia.

Canada’s Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, Lawrence MacAulay, at a funding announcement in Niagara-on-the-Lake on Wednesday, July 4.

The cluster will be overseen by the national grape and wine not-for-profit, Canadian Grapevine Certification Network (CGCN) which is working to advance the $9-billion industry with a sustainable supply of quality grapevine material.

Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI) will lead the research in Ontario and will be involved in additional research across the country, said CCOVI Director Debbie Inglis.

“In the past, we’ve had lots of regional programs, but this is the first time we’ve been able to jointly come together with a funded project on a national level to support issues of national importance to the grape and wine industry,” she said.

Inglis pointed out that this project — to be called Fostering Sustainable Growth of the Canadian Grape and Wine Sector — is also unique because it was driven by the industry, with the CGCN applying for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) funding.

“Research plays an important role in the continuous enhancement of the quality of grapes and wine and the reduction of the environmental footprint of the entire production cycle,” said Hans Buchler, Chair of the CGCN. “We’re grateful for the investment that the Government of Canada and Minister MacAulay provided toward the ongoing success of the Canadian grape and wine sector.”

Matthias Oppenlaender, Chair of Ontario Grape and Wine Research Inc. and the Grape Growers of Ontario (GGO), said the announcement Wednesday is “a culmination of many years of hard work and collaboration with the GGO, Wine Council of Ontario and Winery Grower Alliance of Ontario.”

“Ontario Grape and Wine Research Inc. welcomes the opportunity to partner with and invest in the CGCN’s Grape and Wine Science Cluster,” he said. “This research is vital to the growth and profitability of the grape and wine industry.”

Brock University President Gervan Fearon praised the government’s decision, and said he is “extremely pleased” to have Brock’s world-class grape and wine institute play a crucial role for the new scientific cluster.

“Brock is committed to contributing to making Canada’s communities and industries stronger, healthier and more sustainable,” he said. “Professor Inglis and her CCOVI team of scientists have spent years working closely in support of the grape and wine sector, and are perfectly positioned to help make this investment a significant success for the Canadian industry.”

Prior to making the funding announcement Wednesday at the Niagara-on-the-Lake grape growing farm of Huebel Grapes Estates, managed by Oppenlaender, Minister MacAulay toured the CCOVI laboratories at Brock University and met with researchers and students.

“The funding we announced today will help increase innovation and sustainability in Canada’s wine and grape sector,” he said. “I was also pleased to have the opportunity to meet with student researchers from the University, who represent the next generation of Canada’s grape growers and winemakers, and will play a key role in ensuring the future prosperity of the sector.”

In addition to the $8.4 million in government funding, the grape and wine industry will also contribute $3.7 million in cash and in-kind donations toward the research project.

Inglis said Wednesday’s announcement shows “the federal government’s clear support of our national priorities for a sustainable grape and wine industry.”

“CCOVI is excited to work with our research colleagues across the country to help ensure the continued growth and sustainability of the Canadian grape and wine industry,” she said.

The Brock CCOVI-based research, with industry cash support provided by Ontario Grape and Wine Research Inc., will focus on five areas including:

  • Understanding the impact and management of grapevine diseases in Ontario.
  • Improving red wine quality and consumer acceptance through CCOVI’s TanninAlert program.
  • Grapevine cold hardiness evaluation to improve the sustainability of the Canadian grape and wine industry.
  • Improving sparkling and still wine quality with natural Canadian indigenous yeast.
  • Vineyard pest management.

To complete this work, six Brock-based researchers and scientists will collaborate with 13 of their research colleagues from across Canada.

]]> Brock and Niagara data analytics company receive funding for text mining research Wed, 20 Jun 2018 18:23:59 +0000 When scrolling through your social media feed, it’s not uncommon to come across an ad for a restaurant in your area, a service you’ve inquired about or a store you recently made an online purchase from.

Targeted advertising is a powerful tool in business, one that Brock University researchers hope to strengthen through a new partnership with, a Niagara-based data analytics company.

Brock’s Goodman School of Business is working with to research how artificial intelligence can be used to create more effective ways of targeting advertisements to potential customers.

Last year, Social Sciences student Valérie Plante-Brisebois and Brock MBA graduate Pari Borah (MBA ’16) built and tested an automated system to scan social media postings for keywords and phrases to identify users’ interests and activities.

“What we’re trying to do is to take this ‘Val bot’ and make it super strong so it exceeds any method a human can come up with,” says’s Managing Director Drew Fones.

The company and Brock will now be able to advance their Val-bot, named after one of the student researchers, and other text mining techniques thanks to research grants from the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

“OCE’s support is a recognition that our rigorous work and techniques have an immediate impact in the business community,” says Anteneh Ayanso, Professor of Information Systems and Director of Brock’s Centre for Business Analytics. Ayanso is the lead researcher on the project, titled “Efficient Strategies and Analytics Solutions for Social Media Targeting via Text Mining.”

Currently, social media targeted advertising draws upon what Ayanso refers to as “structured data,” information that includes where potential customers live, work, their gender and some aspects of their lifestyles.

Unstructured data, on the other hand, can be found in “common-day” conversations and customer reviews that reveal people’s travel plans, their ideas, likes, dislikes, preferences and other information.

“The social media environment is contextual and dynamic,” Ayanso says. “If we combine the structured data with unstructured data, we can have a huge impact on and accuracy in the way we identify market opportunities and the right customer group for any given product or service.”

The researchers are taking this concept one step further.

The targeted advertising process is currently controlled by people who select keywords based on their knowledge of the audience they are trying to reach, a method Fones calls “highly subjective.”

He says the new, self-learning automated system being devised uses “text mining” techniques and specialized algorithms to create those keywords more quickly and precisely than human effort. Text mining analyzes data in natural, unstructured communication such as what occurs on social media.

“It will be developed as an end-to-end system wherein eventually, for any given ad content, keyword selection, demographics targeting and ad creation are all automated,” says Fones.

Results so far are encouraging.

“The first time we tested the Val-bot, the human (Plante-Brisebois) did better, debating which keywords are better and selecting them accordingly,” recalls Fones.

“The next time, a few modifications were made to the machine; the results from the human and the machine were tied. The next iteration, the Val-bot did slightly better than the human.”

The purpose of the grant is to formalize this system, advance it and take it to market.

Tek Thongpapanl, Associate Dean of Brock’s Goodman School of Business, lauds the research partnership, which will employ a graduate student and undergraduate student from the University.

“The partnership’s pooled resources advance the understanding of shared challenges, making it possible to address the multifaceted nature of these challenges,” he says.

“More importantly, by involving our trained graduate students in these collaborations, we ensure that the country’s future generations of talent experience the shared challenges first-hand, and are involved in addressing them at the outset.”

The partnership grant includes $25,000 from NSERC-Engage, $20,000 from Ontario Centres of Excellence on behalf of the Ontario Ministry of Research, Innovation and Science, and contributions from in the amounts of $5,000 cash and $30,700 in-kind.  

]]> Brock chemists partner with biodiesel company to boost production process Mon, 18 Jun 2018 20:10:23 +0000 Switching from coal, oil and other fossil fuels to energy derived from plants and animal waste is a crucial climate change strategy — but one businesses are still learning how to find value in.

While governments offer incentives for entrepreneurs to become biofuel leaders, the payoff may not be as attractive as continuing to extract and sell the fossil fuels that contribute to greenhouse gases which cause global warming.

That’s where Brock University chemist Travis Dudding comes in.

He and his team have partnered with a Welland-based biodiesel firm to boost the value of a specific area of the company’s biodiesel production.

Atlantic Biodiesel, the second-largest biodiesel fuel producer in Canada, creates 170 million litres of renewable, clean-burning biodiesel each year, mostly from canola and soy oil. A key byproduct of the process is glycerin, of which Atlantic Biodiesel produces 15 million litres each year.

“One way of combating the unbalanced market share of biodiesel versus fossil fuel resources is to take materials from their process that might be considered waste or lesser value materials and increase their value by making them into other desirable compounds,” says Dudding.

Glycerin, a clear, odourless liquid that tastes sweet, is used in a large variety of products, including medicines, cosmetics, resins, detergents, plastics and processed food.

Most biodiesel companies are already converting their crude glycerin into refined glycerin for use in these and other products as a way of earning extra income.

“It would require a huge amount of capital expenditure here at the plant for us to tap into these products, and there are already strong players in the market,” says Patrick Godbout, Engineering Project Manager at Atlantic Biodiesel.

“In order for us to compete with them, we need to develop a unique, value-added product that would give us a niche in an already existing market.”

With funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, as well as the Ontario Centres of Excellence, Dudding, postdoctoral fellow Roya Mir and graduate student Katie Dempsey are exploring ways to create a new product from the company’s glycerin.

Crucial to the creation of this new product is a process called catalysis, which occurs when a substance — called a catalyst — is added to speed up a chemical reaction. The chemical reaction does not destroy that substance.

“I had an idea that we could actually use small nanoparticles as catalysts,” says Dudding. A nanoparticle is a highly-mobile, sub-microscopic natural or human-made object that has many different properties. It is used in a range of products such as food packaging, flame retardants, batteries and medicines.

The nanocatalysts that Dudding and his team developed use oxygen and operate at room temperature.

“This is ideal for industry. You want processes that don’t require a lot of energy,” he says. “The big thing is that, overall, our nanoparticles are very effective at making the target molecule we want.”

The Brock-Atlantic Biodiesel research team is now identifying a specific high-value product that can be manufactured from the glycerol using the catalytic process that the team developed.

They plan to announce this new value-added product in the next 12 to 18 months.

“The research partnership has been going well,” says Godbout. “Not only have we utilized the partnership on the product development side, but we’ve utilized Brock’s facilities a few times to do other research work. It’s been a good, healthy relationship.”

Dudding says part of what motivates his research is the desire to develop industries and create jobs in Niagara while also providing teaching and training opportunities for students.