Feb. 1, 2018

Faculty of Science creates senior leadership position to boost innovation, strategic partnerships

Frank Maurer to ensure great research ideas have impact that benefits society

Canadian scientists rank among the world’s best in doing high-quality research, but, like many others, we have room for improvement in the innovation ecosystem — going from the great ideas to making an impact in society.

Frank Maurer aims to “shorten the path from ideas to impact,” as the new associate dean of innovation and strategic partnerships in the Faculty of Science at the University of Calgary.

“Innovation is the transfer of an idea into practice,” says Maurer, a professor in the Department of Computer Science. “My new role is about translating the great ideas that our colleagues develop here in their research into industry and businesses into social impact and cultural impact. It’s about helping to grow the digital economy in Calgary.

“Innovation is important because it allows us to actually change the world for the better.” 

Faculty of Science Dean Lesley Rigg created the new senior leadership position, which builds on the faculty’s strategic plan with its “Grand Challenges” aimed at finding solutions for real-world problems.

“What we’re working on is establishing stronger connections with industry and corporations as well as developing solution-focused talent,” Rigg says.

Frank Maurer is the new associate dean of innovation and strategic partnerships in the Faculty of Science at the University of Calgary. Photo by Adrian Shellard, for the University of Calgary

Frank Maurer is the new associate dean of innovation and strategic partnerships.

Adrian Shellard, for the University of Calgary

Goal is to create long-term strategic partnerships

Maurer has already started working with faculty, post-doctoral scholars and students, to help them adopt the entrepreneurial thinking needed to connect their research and discoveries to the community.

There’s actually a lot of overlap between what a researcher and an entrepreneur does, he says. Both must start with a hypothesis or assumptions, define a goal and then build a team and a sustainable organization with sufficient funding to accomplish that goal.

Strategic partnerships are also necessary, he adds, because “we cannot have an impact on society by talking and working amongst us alone. The goal is to build sustainable, long-term partnerships with organizations outside of the university, and with faculties on campus, to do collaborative research that has substantially bigger impact on society."

“Innovation is a contact sport, with researchers, students, government, entrepreneurs, investors and industry all having a role to play. By establishing this position, the Faculty of Science is at the forefront of ensuring impact from university-derived ingenuity is maximized,” says Peter Garrett, associate vice-president research – innovation (AVPR-I) at the University of Calgary.

Maurer is inspired by innovation

Maurer, a highly regarded innovator, has been conducting software research and development for more than three decades. “Software is basically the lifeblood of innovations,” he says.

Besides being an expert on agile software methodologies (collaborative, team-based development of software), his research interests include application engineering for digital surfaces and immersive analytics.

Maurer has worked with large companies like IBM and Nova Chemicals, as well as small-medium enterprises such as Physico4D, CanOils, C4i Consultants and Ivrnet.

He is one of the co-founders and the chief technical officer of a fast-growing Calgary startup called VizworX, which develops custom solutions and software products using information visualization, interaction design and augmented virtual reality. Several of his former students work there.

As the former principal investigator of the NSERC Digital Surface Software Application Network (SurfNet), Maurer led a cross-Canada team conducting research on multi-surface systems and application engineering for digital surfaces.

Since joining the University of Calgary in 1997, he has served as associate vice-president (research), as special adviser on entrepreneurship and innovation, and as department head — among other administrative roles.

Building more collaborative projects

Maurer maintains an active research program, currently focused on immersive analytics (using augmented reality and other new display and interaction technologies to support analytical reasoning and decision making). Last summer, close to 20 students worked in his laboratory.

His and his team’s newest innovation is a tool that uses augmented reality, generated with custom-built software in a wireless headset. Their system allows non-scientists to create visualizations of large data sets that are virtual, three-dimensional holograms floating in space. The holograms are similar to the images seen in the military operations centre in the Hollywood blockbuster Avatar, except those were computer-generated images of a fictional Tree of Souls site.

Maurer’s team created a prototype 3-D hologram, or map, of an actual space — Calgary’s downtown core — for use by emergency responders in co-ordinating evacuations. “With this map, you saw the skyscrapers in three-dimensional space. You could actually dive your head into the skyscraper to see the floor plans of the building.”

When he’s not busy with administrative work or research, Maurer enjoys downhill skiing, reading and playing soccer.

What’s his vision for his new role in the Faculty of Science? “As my heart is in innovation, within five years I would like to see a substantial uptick of collaborative projects, of technology transfer practices, and of working with outside organizations to solve real-world problems.”