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Driving impact in Canada’s largest tech park: uOttawa and Ciena’s collaboration in developing AI technologies

Partnerships between academia and industry in Kanata North drive innovation and impact

uOttawa and Ciena buildings in Kanata North

The University of Ottawa established a satellite campus in Kanata North with the goal of continuing to foster collaborations and long-term partnerships between uOttawa and industry in the tech park that result in mutually beneficial outcomes. 

For nearly five years, the uOttawa Kanata North campus has worked with over 120 partners in the area to help support innovation and impact in Canada’s largest tech park. 

An example of an impactful collaboration between uOttawa and industry in Kanata North is the one between communications tech giant Ciena and uOttawa’s Dr. Shervin Shirmohammadi, a computer and software engineering professor with the Faculty of Engineering. 

How it began

The research collaboration, which has now spanned over five years, began by leveraging a funding program through Mitacs which helps financially support industry-academic research and innovation collaborations. Ciena wanted to explore how AI could troubleshoot problems causing network quality issues and/or interruptions. 

Collaborating with industry was not something new to Shirmohammadi. He has a passion for helping solve industry-related problems and sees how beneficial it is for students to gain experience by working closely with industry.

The Mitacs project looked at stabilizing video streaming services, like YouTube and Netflix, by using AI to identify and fix network problems before they arise. It was such a success that Ciena saw the potential to use the same solution for larger networks.

With commercializing the solution being the logical next step, the partners applied for an NSERC Idea-to-Innovation grant. 

The potential impact of this tech is massive. Think back to the 2022 Rogers network outage that was reportedly caused by a maintenance upgrade issue. Introducing advanced AI tools like the one Ciena and uOttawa were developing brings new analytical options for telecom service providers to proactively identify the root cause of these types of problems

The value of the industry-academia partnership

In addition to the personal and professional satisfaction that comes from problem solving, each party benefited from the partnership in unique ways. 

For Ciena, it was about discovering new industry-relevant solutions and accessing the unique infrastructure and expertise at uOttawa. “Collaborating with uOttawa allows us to explore curiosity-based research, which is pivotal for driving innovation,” said Dr. Chris Barber, senior data science manager at Ciena’s Blue Planet division. 

For uOttawa, it was about developing solutions to support a specific industry need, creating and sharing knowledge, as well as giving graduate students the opportunity to gain unique experience working with industry.

“We give our PhD students ‘non-academic experience,’” said Shirmohammadi. “By working with an industry partner, they pick up hands-on skills which prepares them for the job market.”

The impact

Overall, what both parties may value most is seeing their collaborative work in action. 

Ciena is leveraging the intellectual property, including three patents, to incorporate into their product offerings and make their communications infrastructure more robust and stable around the world.

uOttawa has elevated the reach and impact of university research by working to help solve industry problems, leveraged research grants that support industry-academia collaborations, and created unique training opportunities for students.  

“Without uOttawa and the research collaboration grants, research like this may not be possible. Sometimes you have to try many approaches to get it right, so it can take years to yield any return on investment,” said Barber. “Companies tend to think that a project that doesn’t immediately result in revenue is a failure, but I think you have to break a few eggs before you find the golden one.” 

The most exciting impact could be the AI technology itself. Shirmohammadi says what they built came up with a solution a human wouldn’t have considered.

“The AI put all video streams into a single link — something an engineer would never do because it can lead to congestion,” he said. “It was a strange approach but turned out to be the right thing to do.”

It is evident that when uOttawa and industry come together, innovation and creativity flourishes, tough problems are solved, and talent is equipped with the right experiences to work in the private sector and hit the ground running. 

Interested in collaborating with uOttawa? Connect with the uOttawa Kanata North team to explore how you can partner and innovate with them!