“Hurry up to go slow” seems a common reaction to any disruptive technology in Canada — especially electrification. With Canada’s focus on developing government policy and preparing infrastructure for an electric-centred way of life, integrating these technologies into our communities should be a priority. But, the only way to quickly bring these technologies to bear is to have municipalities ready and willing to act as a sandbox to test and prove that these technologies work, and then commit resources to accelerate them to commercialization.
The Durham Regional Technology Development Site (Durham RTDS) is doing exactly that. As a collective of world-class support for startups and small-to-medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) with innovation in electric and connected vehicles, smart mobility solutions and smart communities, Durham RTDS assists with developing and testing these innovations in real-world environments. They then help to advance them to commercialization and adoption.
With an investment of more than $85 million from the Ontario Centre of Innovation, Durham RTDS is one of seven regional technology development sites formed in 2017 as part of the Ontario Vehicle Innovation Network (OVIN). These sites were formed across Ontario to support startups and SMEs i n the development, validation and commercialization of electric and connected vehicle technology and smart mobility solutions.
“Durham Region possesses some of Ontario’s strongest assets for the advancement of electric, connected and autonomous technology solutions.”
In its earlier years, Durham RTDS comprised of Oshawa-based innovation centre Spark Centre, Durham College’s Office of Research Services, Innovation and Entrepreneurship (ORSIE) and Ontario Tech University and its ACE Climatic Wind Tunnel. This collective utilizes each other’s assets to support SMEs in advancing autonomous, connected and electric technology solutions. However, without a municipal partner, the consortium quickly realized that the adoption of these leading-edge solutions would be slow. That spurred Durham RTDS to bring Durham Region — an internationally recognized smart community — into the fold.
“Durham Region possesses some of Ontario’s strongest assets for the advancement of electric, connected and autonomous technology solutions,” says Sherry Colbourne, president and CEO of Spark Centre. “There is no better place in Ontario to bring these technology solutions to market.”
Durham RTDS is a powerhouse for accelerating innovation with such a high-calibre consortium at its core. For example, Ontario Tech University brings its world-renowned Automotive Centre of Excellence, complete with test labs for aerodynamic, climatic and structural research and development, a QA Consultants software test bay for automotive software testing and development, and full-scale EV bi-directional charging research stations. This is coupled with a team of globally leading faculty and a team of full-time industry professionals. Ontario Tech University is also the lead on the build of the prototype for Project Arrow, Canada’s first zero-emission concept electric vehicle.
“Ontario Tech University has a proven track record of working with partners to help them turn their ideas into products,” says Jennifer Alsop, the university’s strategic partnership officer. “As one of Canada’s leading universities for industry-led research, Ontario Tech has worked with small companies to large multinational companies and has the experience and sector know-how required to bring technologies to market.”
Named for the ninth time as one of Canada’s Top 50 Research Colleges, Durham College has five applied research centres, three of which specifically assist SMEs with developing applications in the smart mobility space. Durham College’s AI Hub, Centre for Cybersecurity Innovation and MRC Studio assists with the research and development of technologies rooted in deep learning, machine learning, penetration testing, augmented and virtual reality and more.
“Applied research at Durham College focuses on solving a specific challenge for an industrial or community partner using a scientific approach, specialized equipment and skilled practitioners,” says Chris Gillis, the manager of applied research business development at Durham College, “Typically, these challenges are what stand in the way of commercializing an innovative product or service. We work on real problems and develop real solutions
Spark Centre supports founders with business mentorship from industry experts, IP commercialization, access to funding, connections to industry resources and more. It is also a high-touch gateway for global entrepreneurs relocating their businesses to the Region.
“SMEs need guidance on scaling their companies, access to funding, a strategy for commercializing their intellectual property and great mentors to guide their growth.” Colbourne says. “We belong to a world-class regional innovation network funded by the province (MEDJCT), ensuring that our highest potential startups are heavily supported to hasten their trajectory to success.”
Then there’s the most recent addition to Durham RTDS: Durham Region, a forward-thinking municipality known for its strength in the automotive sector and in energy innovation. Municipalities in Ontario can look to Durham Region as an example of what communities can become when adopting technology is a priority. Named in 2022 as one of the top seven global smart communities of the year by the Intelligent Community Forum, Durham Region has a strong history of bolstering innovation to improve municipal services, from implementing AI for pothole detection to an autonomous shuttle integrated into transit.
Durham RTDS’s collaboration doesn’t end with its core partners. It’s also linked to a wide network of industry and community leaders that have additional offerings like advanced charging platforms, simulation environments, robotic “sandboxes,” data lakes and more.
In 2022, after bringing Durham Region on as a core partner, Durham RTDS launched calls for solutions to regional transportation challenges to startups and SMEs. Successful challenge participants reap significant benefits, prime for accelerating their innovation to market — from technical expertise and research and development resources through Ontario Tech University and Durham College, to business advisory services through Spark Centre. Most importantly, they have the opportunity to pilot their solutions in Durham Region utilizing regional infrastructure.
“By demonstrating these technologies through the challenge statement model, companies can demonstrate the veracity of their marketable solutions to current challenges. These pilots also provide companies with the opportunity to build relationships with researchers to extend company R&D,” says Dan Ruby, manager of business development and investment with Invest Durham. “For the Region, these pilots provide opportunities for increased road safety, better road condition monitoring, better collection and analysis of transportation- related information, reduced environmental and carbon footprint, and innovative new products and services to improve transit in the Region.”
The first challenge called for technology to make regional intersections safer by increasing driver awareness of pedestrians and cyclists. The successful participants (to be announced soon) will pilot their solutions at high-risk regional intersections. The second challenge, released earlier this year, calls for a detection and communication system for transit stops that would enable Durham Region Transit (DRT) to understand how many customers are waiting on a route, how they use transit stop infrastructure while waiting for a bus and how to communicate important announcements. Successful applicants can pilot their solutions at transit stops throughout the region. More challenges are planned to launch throughout 2023.
“With a solid network of technical and business support, live testing environments, forward-thinking municipalities and calls for solutions that allow innovators to flex their muscles, Durham RTDS has positioned Durham Region as Ontario’s destination for smart mobility SMEs to build, commercialize and accelerate their solutions,” Colbourne says.
Spark Spolight:Kevares
This Oshawa, Ont.-based company (founded in 2019) uses autonomous mobile robots that provide municipalities and private businesses with a variety of services, including litter collection, lawn mowing, sidewalk inspection, parking enforcement and surveillance. These mobile robots are electric, and for CEO and founder Joel Nascimento, the company’s goal is to use “life electrification” to help reduce the carbon footprint of cities, towns and organizations. Its robots also increase efficiency by allowing businesses to allocate staff to more important, less hazardous and repetitive tasks. In the last few years, Nascimento has secured partnerships with Fortran Traffic Systems and the Oshawa Public Utility Company and worked with three global interns from Mitacs to test autonomous litter collection and lawn mowing.

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