An interesting story below about an engineer using his observations in water treatment to innovate and improve work-flow for lots of other companies. A chemical engineering education can lead in lots of different directions!
In 2014, freshly graduated UC Berkeley alum Ryan Chan was working as a chemical engineer at a water purification plant, when he realized that the company was constantly facing equipment downtime. The workers used a maintenance program that helped them track all the breakdowns, but there was a big problem with the software they were using that was slowing them down.
“Everything was desktop based, but the maintenance team, the people that were using it, never sat at a desk,” Chan says.
So Chan realized there had to be a smarter, mobile-first solution for all the blue collar workers across facilities. He wound up teaching himself how to code at night and on weekends, and developed the app while he worked as a chemical engineer, and later as an iOS developer.
In 2016, Chan launched UpKeep, an app developed for facility managers and maintenance workers that allows them to flag things that need repairs and run equipment audits across facilities.
A story at the link below about a company started by one of our nanotechnology engineering graduates (and a Masters in Mechanical Engineering, according to his LinkedIn page). The technology is based on SPR, or Surface Plasmon Resonance, and interesting material property that appears at the nanoscale. Some of my research work is based on this phenomenon, and this seems like a nice piece of equipment.
Kitchener startup’s ‘life extending’ technology helps researchers study disease and develop new medicines
KITCHENER — Ryan Denomme pursues cutting edge science from inside an old factory building where his grandmother used to work.
Denomme is the co-founder and chief executive officer of Nicoya Lifesciences, which recently launched the second version of its desktop device that measures interactions between some of the most important building blocks in the human body — proteins.
There was a recent announcement about the launch of Waterloo’s “Problem Lab“. This seems like an interesting and very useful initiative. The goal of the Problem Lab is to help the UW community (faculty, staff and students) “identify and understand important problems”. Prof. Larry Smith, whom I have cited in other posts, is the Director and Founder. As they point out, innovation can often “fail because either the innovation is not important enough to be widely adopted, or the problem is poorly understood“.
In Engineering design, one of the first steps is supposed to be analyzing and understanding the problem (problem analysis). However, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of creating cool solutions to the apparent problem too early. Then we end up with products, innovations, and solutions that no one wants because it wasn’t really that important or worth our time and money investment. Or, we get solutions that don’t work because they didn’t actually solve the correct problem, but maybe just addressed a symptom of the fundamental problem.
In complex systems, sometimes you have to spend more time on determining the problem than the actual solution, which may turn out to be fairly simple. There are quite a variety of problem analysis methods that are available, depending on the field and context. One that often comes up in the Chemical Engineering field is Root Cause Analysis, for identifying product quality and equipment failure issues. Another one, for anticipating problems and solving them before they occur, is called HAZOP (hazard and operability analysis). We touch on these and other methods in some of our courses design case studies, and the capstone design projects, although it takes further training and experience to begin to use them effectively in industry.
The Problem Lab will have some pitch competitions, which look interesting. I’ll look forward to seeing how this evolves and what interesting things come out of it.
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.
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 fundingto 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.
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.