A door to the future

With engineering as one of its foundations, Western Sarnia-Lambton Research Park is helping frame what we’ll be seeing decades from now

There may be no more passionate person to talk about engineering than Dr. Katherine Albion, the executive director of the Western Sarnia-Lambton Research Park located on the former headquarters of Dow Chemical Canada Inc.

Albion, who earned both her bachelor’s degree and doctorate in chemical engineering from Western University in London, joined the Research Park in 2008, a year after her graduation.

Her first job was as a commercialization and research engineer, engaging with clients and getting her professional feet wet as she learned how the local community worked, the various relationships that could be built and strengthened.

Four years later, Albion took the reins of the Bowman Centre for Sustainable Chemistry, located at the Research Park with a mission of catalyzing big energy projects, the kind of work that essentially put Sarnia on the map.

Shortly thereafter, in 2013, Albion became director of Commercialization at the Research Park, a role she held until January 2018, when she succeeded the retiring Tom Stifler as executive director.

“A lot of our commercialization efforts here in Research Park depend on engineering,” says Albion. “It encompasses everything from the lab stage, through the small bench stage and right up and through the pilot phase and then scaling up again at the commercial stage of a company’s development.”

In short, without engineering there would not only be no Research Park, there would be no companies with the products we depend on now or will in the years to come.

For Albion, one of the most challenging areas is how a company scales—a term that’s used frequently to describe how an idea that works in principle and even may be able to be demonstrated in small “batches” will ultimately be able to deliver a sustained level of value to investors and to the public that buys what the company has to sell.

But throughout those stages, the focus on engineering can’t be overlooked.

“In so many things that we’re doing here, the focus is on engineering,” notes Albion. “There’s so many labs and pilot plants where advanced projects are then optimized and improved before they’re ready for commercialization. They all depend on engineering.”

Today, the Research Park Albion oversees in her lead role has about 25 tenants involved in some stage of their commercialization, typically small companies, often starting up, frequently at the lab phase or pilot plant phase of their existence.

Among the numerous examples Albion outlines is Western Phytoceutica Inc., a natural products company focused on development of ginseng-based products. The firm has been at the Research Park since 2013.

The company, Albion says, has partnered with Lambton College in its natural products laboratory, and has expanded its footprint at the Research Park.

While Albion says the Research Park is almost (95 percent) full, she acknowledges that at least in some respects, it’s not desirable to be without some room for growth, particularly if a tenant wants to expand the space it currently occupies.

Albion continues to value the natural (and formal) connection with Western University, which has two representatives on the Research Park board.

There are also two signature events that take up some of her time but which deliver lasting value for the Research Park and the companies locally that support those initiatives.

One is Western’s Chemical and Biochemical Engineering Capstone Competition, a one-day presentation of work done by students that took place this year on March 29 at the Research Park.

As Albion notes, the projects presented are a glimpse into the future.

“This is the future some 20 or 30 years down the road,” she said. “This is the stuff we’re going to one day be seeing as commonplace that started here.”

It’s also an event that gives students great exposure, often their first opportunity to face industry representatives they may be facing as employers one day soon.

Albion chuckles, albeit almost nervously, as she recalls her own experience presenting at a Capstone event some years ago.

“I’m nervous for them,” she says with a smile on her face, somewhat in relief that she’s well beyond that stage in her own career.

When Capstone moved from Western’s main campus several years ago, one of Albion’s tasks was to work on developing a network of sponsors and a team of judges, which brings valuable insights into industry expectations for the young engineers about to graduate.

“Some of them in the last five years have been hired in Sarnia and some have had coop positions in Sarnia as prospective employers have come and watched them do their presentations, hiring them when they graduate,” she notes.

Another event is Research Bridges, an event similar to the Capstone event but involving doctoral and master’s students from Western who summarize their thesis in three minutes and one slide, something that Albion admits is challenging in that it involves no technical jargon.

That event takes place in June and while Albion admits it’s a somewhat exhausting exercise in some ways, she also looks forward to hosting the various events.

“They’re great for the community and gives us great exposure here at the Park.”

What Albion is also seeing is something of a “spider web” network of interactions that are building new levels of value.

One of those is in the relationship the Research Park continues to develop with Lambton College.

“We work with them on a daily basis,” says Albion. “There are some great relationships, including most of the labs at Lambton College working with us on various commercialization projects.”

The Research Park is also reaching out through events like Go Eng Girl, which will take place in October as an opportunity to introduce young girls—grades 7-10—to the concepts of engineering through hands-on activities that organizers hope will spark a lasting (and personal) interest in the profession.

And what attracted Albion herself to the engineering profession? She doesn’t quite answer the question but does indicate it was a decision that may, like many others in life, was made by happenstance.

“I really didn’t know a lot about engineering at the time,” said Albion, who grew up in London. “When I came to the university, I didn’t have a lot of background, especially not the kind of programs we have today that help girls discover what engineering is all about.”

What’s clear is that she dived right in, eventually not only earning her undergraduate but taking a doctorate, which involved spending six months in the research department of Syncrude Canada in Edmonton as part of her thesis.

“I can’t picture myself being anything else than an engineer,” says Albion.

As far as the growth of the Research Park, there is lots of land available for expansion, when the right time comes.

“We can approximately double when we need the space,” she adds.

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