Waterloo company is developing real-time hydrologic tool through student partnerships

University of Waterloo partnership enables Aquanty to secure talent while tackling innovative water resource modeling research 

Collaborators: University of Waterloo, Aquanty Inc.

Since 2013, SOSCIP has supported research and development activities undertaken by the research partnership between Aquanty Inc. and the University of Waterloo. Aquanty, a water resource science and technology firm, specializes in innovative tools for understanding and managing terrestrial water resources. In collaboration with Prof. Ed Sudicky, the team has developed a real-time, hyper-resolution simulation capability for Aquanty’s HydroGeoSphere (HGS) platform (an integrated groundwater/surface water modelling platform that allows clients to simulate the entire terrestrial portion of the hydrologic cycle) and created a pilot for analyzing and presenting hydrogeologic modelling data using a real-time, cloud-based system. The tool will enable government agencies to better manage water resources and mitigate flood risks for dam operations; it can even be used by the agricultural sector to make informed decisions for planting and harvesting crops by delivering insights on soil moisture and groundwater levels.

These accomplishments are equalled by another success:  providing research trainees (including graduate students and post-doctoral fellows) with unique industry-related experiences to equip them with the skills to move from the world of academia to industry.

SOSCIP’s support enables industry partners to hire trainees from relevant fields who are well-versed in the most up-to-date tools, techniques and knowledge and can apply it directly to industry problems. Their expertise and fresh perspectives can be invaluable in the highly competitive corporate arena. The partnership between Aquanty and the University of Waterloo illustrates the success of the approach. Many of the trainees who have worked on projects with Aquanty have been hired by the company or have gone on to collaborate with them on future endeavours.

“We benefited from post-docs who came in when company was very small,” said Steve Berg, the CEO of Aquanty. “They have grown as the company as grown and assumed more responsibility.”

Steve Berg, PhD, P.Geo. – President and CEO, Aquanty

“In contrast to a lot of startups, we were founded by research academics and technology was developed over 30 years and became commercial ready in 2012,” Berg added. “Our focus was always on keeping our HGS platform on the cutting edge of science and getting our ideas and expertise from PhD researchers. That is still very much our focus; we’re very much a research company.”

Since trainees are experienced with research methods and are research-oriented, they make ideal candidates for employment at Aquanty, although they still need on-the-job training. While working on SOSCIP projects, they are funded through grants which enables Aquanty to train them for the rigours of the job while getting up to speed on industry methods and demands.

“We use postdoc programs as opportunity to recruit long term talent. Almost all postdocs stay on staff or end up in faculty positions.”

“There is a risk when you bring on someone fresh out of school,” Berg said. “Starting post-docs out on SOSCIP projects helps to mitigate the risk. It takes time to get the graduate up to speed as to what you do as a company. PhD and post-docs are specialized and it takes a bit of time to broaden their expertise, get them exposed to what we are doing and get them working on other things as well.

“Our expectation of a postdoc is that anyone with a PhD should be fairly independent. We point them in a direction, and we expect them to manage their deadlines and projects themselves. We treat them as senior members of the team; it’s trial by fire. By the end of the project, we want them to be able to function within the program. Because of that, they come out and they have the ability to manage new projects on their own, manage small teams and move up within company, as well.

Prof. Ed Sudicky, University of Waterloo

The success of the trainees’ efforts highlights the importance these collaborations have, not only in creating technological advances, but in furthering the careers of promising researchers and strengthening the expertise of the company. Many trainees are seeking career opportunities outside of academia but are not familiar with the means of parlaying their skills into commercial job success. SOSCIP funding provides them the opportunity to work on applied research projects with industry partners, giving them insights into the industrial world and providing them with the broad range of skills required to obtain jobs in this sector.

“We use postdoc programs as opportunity to recruit long term talent. Almost all postdocs stay on staff or end up in faculty positions.”  In addition to providing trainees to explore industry opportunities at Aquanty itself, the company has also helped to nurture trainees who have gone on to other career opportunities.

“Highly talented people with PhDs have a hard time getting that first job because they’re so specialized,” Berg said. “Sometimes they’re not perfectly suited to an industry position. It makes it easier to find that first job if they’ve had supplemental program experience; otherwise, they may not have been easily hired”

Joining the workforce through a SOSCIP project can be an eye-opener for researchers steeped in the academic tradition, Berg noted.  “Some of them may not have had an industry job previously, and that alone could be a shock,” he said. “It can be a transition from the university to the corporate world. That first job is important for any level.”

SOSCIP allows us to take a risk in innovation

Since their incorporation, Aquanty has trained eight trainees and they have hired 5 of them. The first trainee who ever worked with the company is now leading one of Aquanty’s major teams while many others have moved into senior positions within the company. One is working as a senior application engineer and another serves as a senior software developer.

“Working with SOSCIP is fantastic” Berg explains. He credits SOSCIP for making career development possible for these trainees while they are making real contributions to commercial projects. “For instance, one that was useful was that it proved our hypothesis is wrong. As scientists that’s a good outcome. We didn’t use our own time in discovering that. It [SOSCIP] allows us to take a risk in innovation where it’s not successful.”