Category Archives: Research & Innovation

New SONAMI network manager continues family legacy in public service

At Niagara College’s Research & Innovation division, Kithio Mwanzia takes on the role of network manager for SONAMI (Southern Ontario Network for Advanced Manufacturing), an NC-led consortium of academic institutions supporting the manufacturing industry.

Ambassadorship, in all its forms, is deep-rooted in Kithio Mwanzia’s family.

The son of a former Kenyan ambassador to the European Union and the grandson of one of the first Chamber of Commerce presidents in the Kenyan Republic during post-colonialism, Mwanzia grew up around public policy, community service and business advocacy.

Today, after serving for three Ontario Chambers of Commerce, he continues the legacy for public stewardship in his new role as network manager for the Southern Ontario Network for Advanced Manufacturing (SONAMI), a Niagara College-led consortium of academic institutions providing a pool of resources and expertise to support the manufacturing needs of small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

SONAMI has recently entered its second phase after a significant reinvestment from the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev), on the heels of a successful first phase. The award-winning network is a partnership between Conestoga College, Fanshawe College, Lambton College, McMaster University, Mohawk College, Niagara College, and Sheridan College – with plans on growing to 10 partners, enhancing its reach to help SMEs innovate.

“With this expansion, the network will not only help SMEs remain competitive, but it will also continue to provide more students with the opportunities to gain essential skills by working on leading-edge applied research solutions for industry partners,” he explains.


As network manager, Mwanzia oversees the performance of all partner institutions to ensure successful project outcomes, while also helping manufacturers adopt cutting-edge technologies into their operations so they can create innovative new products. As well, he is responsible for working with the SONAMI steering committee to devise a plan for sustainability beyond the five-year funding envelope from FedDev.

True to his lineage, Mwanzia also sees his role as an ambassador for the SONAMI network – as an emissary of sorts between SMEs needing help with research and development, and the academic institutions who are at the ready to engage.

“I see ambassadorship in four key areas: between industry-academic partnerships; between the institutional collaborations working together around common goals; for high-quality student experiential learning and also for economic prosperity and business success,” he says.

In laying this foundation, he is establishing relationships within the seven advanced manufacturing ecosystems (chambers, economic development corporations) surrounding each academic institution to get a clear picture of the needs of the SMEs and how the array of technology capabilities from each SONAMI member can best match those requirements.

“I’m understanding the culture of these ecosystems, how they want to function, what their ambitions are, and how we can help them achieve these goals,” he says. “Each network member has specialized capabilities, and I’m identifying companies that can be connected with our academic partners.”

“With this expansion, the network will not only help SMEs remain competitive, but it will also continue to provide more students with the opportunities to gain essential skills by working on leading-edge applied research solutions for industry partners.”

Mwanzia’s commitment as an economic champion has a strong history, having worked 12 years in the chamber of commerce milieu.

Most of those years were in management positions and in a variety of capacities. He was director of Public Policy and Government Relations, first at the St. Catharines – Thorold Chamber of Commerce, then the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce, where he later served as interim chief executive officer. Prior to returning to the region – and Niagara College – he spent four years as the president and CEO of the Guelph Chamber of Commerce, earning the title of one of the youngest chamber CEOs in the country – at age 29.

Mwanzia was honoured with several awards, including the Top 40 Under 40 Awards for both Guelph and Niagara, and the David Betzner Award for Volunteer Service.

During his career, he had the vantage point of observing first-hand the R&D challenges that can hinder growth and innovation for smaller manufacturers.

“At the time, there weren’t many funding solutions for businesses … they would identify a project, but engaging in an application process could last several months if not a year,” he explains. “SONAMI is designed to be able to move at the speed of business.”

To his SONAMI post, Mwanzia also brings a global world-view instilled by living in several countries during his younger formative years.

Being born in New York while his father was posted as the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Kenya, his family moved to Khartoum, Sudan; then Brussels, Belgium; and later returned to Kenya, where Mwanzia completed high school.

In deciding on his post-secondary education, he chose Brock University because, as an international student, he was looking for a place he believed had a “good sense of community.”
While there, Mwanzia earned a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and a master’s degree in Public Policy – a designation he received while also working full time.

His university experience was not without controversy. He entered the race for vice-president of University Affairs, with the Brock University Students’ Union (BUSU), but was tossed out of the election because the returning officer ruled that international students were ineligible to run for executive positions.

“I thought that seemed strange since all of us were there as part of a collective commons, so why would there be a population that isn’t allowed to participate in the election at the highest level?”

And so, Mwanzia spent time researching and discovered such a ruling was in fact, not correct. He threw his hat back in and was elected to the executive. He was 20 years old at the time.

He went on to become the first international student also to be elected as president and chief executive officer and chair of the Board of Directors with BUSU. He later received the Outstanding Young Alumni Award from his alma mater in 2018.

This tenacity, to Mwanzia’s friends, earned him such adjectives as “dynamic, passionate, and driven.” In both Niagara and Guelph, and through the networking pursuits linked with his chamber positions and his extensive volunteering for non-profits and boards, Mwanzia became well-known and recognized in various circles as a confident leader and a policy-making powerhouse.

Yet he is quick to note that while his professional life demands a certain deliberate composure, there is more than meets the eye.

“I can come across as a little serious because of the nature of my work, but I’m a pretty fun-loving guy,” he quips. “I enjoy socializing, good conversation and a good laugh.” The latter is evident by his signature baritone laugh, reminiscent of James Earl Jones.

 “I can come across as a little serious because of the nature of my work, but I’m a pretty fun-loving guy.”

This juxtaposition aside, those not in his social crowd may be surprised by his other chosen field had he not had diplomacy in his blood: the live stage.

To his delight, he got a small taste for theatrics a number of years ago when he was part of a community engagement program with Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Shaw Festival, and he had the chance to read a scene with a professional Shaw actor. He was hooked.

It’s the high-pressure environment of live theatre that calls to Mwanzia. “There is no take-two in theatre,” he explains. “The actor or actress has to deliver and captivate your imagination in one try.”

This was not his first time in a stage performance. Back in Kenya, he landed the lead role of Captain von Trapp in his high school’s production of the musical The Sound of Music (the irony is not lost on him). While he fit in rehearsals between his rugby games and practices, his co-star, a Swedish exchange student who played Maria, took things more seriously and actually went on to have a notable acting career.

“But I can still sing ‘Edelwiss,’” he points out proudly.

When he is not volunteering around Niagara, or taking in the theatre, he socializes outside – mountain biking or kayaking with friends during warmer weather. He did make a commitment to himself to pick up a winter hobby this year – so a pair of snowshoes is waiting by his door, for when the time is right.

In the meantime, he is on the lookout for that perfectly suited stage role in a community theatre group.

To learn more about SONAMI, visit the website:


Niagara a hotbed for applied industrial research: Financial Post

Jacob Morris, an NC Mechanical Engineering Technology graduate and former Research Assistant with Research & Innovation and Gordon Maretzki, Centre Manager, Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre (WAMIC) work on a specialized prototype inside the advanced manufacturing research labs.

Titled “Niagara’s secret superpower in manufacturing,” the Financial Post newspaper carried a story on Dec. 2, 2019, that highlighted Niagara College’s Research & Innovation division.

The article listed several reasons Niagara has been “one of Canada’s most robust industrial communities for more than 100 years, and one of the most desirable places to locate a manufacturing company.” It lists access to international markets; its large group of small- and medium-sized manufacturing firms; a collaborative manufacturing community through the Niagara Industrial Association (NIA) and its hub for applied industrial research, “thanks in large part to the Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre (WAMIC)” at Niagara College.

Students and faculty at WAMIC work together to develop new products and processes for industrial clients in Niagara and across Ontario, developing a new generation of highly-skilled workers and developing real-world solutions for established companies, said Gordon Maretzki, Centre Manager at WAMIC.

The sponsored story, through the Niagara Region Economic Development, appeared in the Financial Post and will also run in upcoming issues of the Toronto Sun and National Post newspapers.

Read the story  HERE


De-risk your technology adoption with these projects

Niagara College’s Research & Innovation division is set to offer small- and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) a way to advance their product development, improve their performance or take an innovative leap forward, through the province’s College Voucher for Technology Adoption (CVTA) program.

Thanks to a $210,000 grant from the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE), the College will provide vouchers to 25 companies to help solve their innovation challenges related to technology adoption, in the sectors of advanced manufacturing, food and beverage, and agriculture environmental technologies.

Businesses will work with expert faculty, students, and researchers from NC’s three Innovation Centres to access resources to address technology and innovation challenges. As a result of this opportunity, industry partners will acquire new prototypes, products, processes, and test results that validate their products and services, bringing them closer to market. Companies accessing these resources at Niagara College will be required to match OCE funds, at least 1:1, with a combination of cash and in-kind.

Niagara College has a proven track record managing these project partnerships with SMEs.

Over the past two years, the R&I division has successfully completed 23 technology-adoption projects, where both SMEs and NC students benefitted. This was demonstrated last year when the research team at the Canadian Food & Wine Institute (CFWI) Innovation Centre helped sugar-conscious dessert company Bald Baker to extend the shelf life, and optimize and scale-up their two cookie products in order to commercialize them into a larger market.

Since the project, Bald Baker is now on the shelves of Ontario health food markets, with Sobey’s grocery chain on the horizon. The company was also able to “significantly improve” their understanding of product development and production processes.

“Business has been really good this year so far,” says owner Dan Sennet. “Lots of growth and lots of interest from larger, more national retailers.”

Other examples of previous CVTA industry partnerships include enhancing renewable energy research, strategic marketing analysis, advancing horticultural practices, and food safety and quality assurance.

“By working with Niagara College, and thanks to funding by the OCE, we were able to receive excellent marketing information that would have taken our in-house staff six months to compile. We appreciate the ability to move forward with this project in an accelerated fashion.” 
– Jane Lockard, National Records Management

Within the CVTA program, some technology adoption projects can be incorporated into existing college programs such as Culinary Innovation Food Technology; Electronics or Mechanical Engineering; Greenhouse Technician; Industrial Automation; and Renewable Energies Technician, where students will work with their course faculty and industry partner to address the specialized challenge.

Others will require the facilities and researcher expertise of NC’s three Innovation Centres, such as the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre, where the focus is on developing remote and real-time sensing and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data-processing technologies to support precision agriculture. The centre is also home to a 20,000 sq. ft. on-campus greenhouse accessible to companies looking to work on horticultural or greenhouse management projects.

The CFWI Innovation Centre houses a suite of food technology labs to support culinary industry innovation from recipe development to shelf-life testing, and nutritional labelling. The centre also works collaboratively with the College’s craft brewery, winery, 40-acre on-campus vineyard, and the new artisan distillery.

Specializing in engineering design, 3D technologies, lean manufacturing processes, and additive manufacturing, the Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre is home to Canada’s first 2nd generation Fortus 900 3D printer. The applied manufacturing research space also houses a full suite of 3D scanning, designing, and printing technologies.

For more information about the funding program, including details for companies interested in partnering with the Research & Innovation team, contact Elizabeth Best at or 905-641-2252, ext. 4287.

Breakout Sessions – Niagara Food & Beverage Innovation Summit

Michael Vahabi and Kaela Lewis, both from Hela Spice Canada, formulators of custom blends and spice mixtures for the meat, poultry, bakery and other sectors of the food industry. During this breakout session, Vahabi and Lewis offered a comprehensive look at plant-based trends. They compared various plant-based proteins in terms of functionality and hydration in addition to discovering problem-solving techniques for common issues.
Photo by Josh Bacvar

Jason Mittelheuser is a scientist at FONA International, an established company that creates and produces flavours for many of the largest food, beverage, and nutritional companies in the world. In this breakout session, he explored the 3 Ms: The Challenging Functional Bases that require tools specifically formulated to mask, modify and add mouthfeel.
Photo by: Miranda Langendoen

Alan Unwin is Associate Dean for the School of Environmental and Horticultural Studies at Niagara College. During this breakout session, he discussed cannabis production hurdles, challenges and opportunities and the impact on the food industry. In September 2018, NC launched the first post-secondary Commercial Cannabis Production program of its kind in Canada.

POSITION AVAILABLE: Research Assistant position available with the Canadian Food & Wine Institute Innovation Centre team

Research Assistant, Canadian Food & Wine Institute Innovation Centre

The Research Assistant will be enrolled in the Culinary Innovation and Food Technology or related food and beverage program. The successful candidate will work on a variety of projects and skill-building tasks. This includes assisting across various projects focusing on, but not limited to: new product development, product refinement and scale-up production, process improvement, shelf-life and packaging studies and more.

Click HERE to see the full job posting. To apply, please email your resume, cover letter, transcript and school schedule to and reference posting ‘CFWI IC 01’ in the subject line.
The deadline to apply is Friday, December 6th, 2019.

We thank all applicants; however, only those qualifying for an interview will be contacted.

Derek Schulze: Cultivating a scientist

It may seem to the casual observer a big leap between human cardiac research and molecular screening of plant cell cultures. But like every other living organism, the cell is the basic building block – and the study of both comes down to basic science for Derek Schulze.

The biologist carried out research in both fields before arriving at Niagara College in 2016 to teach for the School of Environment and Horticulture Studies. For the last year, he’s also been the coordinator for the Greenhouse Technician program and has served as Faculty Research Lead for several course-based projects for NC’s Research & Innovation division.

The molecular study of human blood cells is, in fact, much easier than plant study as plants have so many other chemicals that get in the way, explains Schulze. “Other than that, it’s really the same thing in terms of applying science.”

He has gathered the evidence, tested and analyzed in both disciplines, first in the medical domain and then in the plant world.

Interestingly, while he and his family owned and operated a commercial greenhouse for more than a decade prior to his role as educator, he did not possess a life-long passion for the floriculture world (although he did specialize in botany during his undergraduate Biology degree.)

In fact, growing up and before earning a Master’s degree in Biophysics and Molecular Biology from the University of Guelph (1996), Schulze was undecided about which field of science to pursue.

 “I had no idea what I wanted to do, but I just loved everything about science.”

Yet he was curious and had the creativity to take on the enigmatic mysteries of the natural world. In university, he developed his critical and pragmatic way of thinking. He then spent his career applying these principles to various realms of science.

Schulze started his field of work researching plant tissue culture and molecular screening using flow cytometry (FCM) – laser-based technology used to analyze cells. From studying plant cells, he aptly transitioned into a medical laboratory studying human cells for the Cancer Research Institute at Queen’s University. He has also worked in electrophysiology – the study of the electrical properties of cells –conducting cardiac research.

No matter the discipline, it’s all science, he explains.

“When you’re trained as a scientist, you’re given skills on different levels. So there are specific skills like how to operate certain lab machinery,” he says.  “But the broader skills are learning how to ask questions, determining what questions are good, which ones are not and discerning what’s good information in order to formulate your plan to tackle the next question.”

This type of knowledge is universal and can be applied to any context – and something he now imparts on his students.

“That’s because the same principles exist, and a scientist needs to be able to understand how data collection works, how to mix chemicals and build a study and then implement and execute it.”

While at Queen’s and immersed in embryonic stem cells, Schulze used his free time to build a small greenhouse where he grew and sold bedding plants. This without any prior knowledge about growing plants on a scale larger than a window sill.

“I didn’t know anything about it … I just learned it.”

Schulze and his wife Karleen, who was a biostatistician for the radiation oncology unit at the University, eventually decided to leave Kingston, put their academic research careers on hold and head to Vineland to purchase and operate TJ Greenhouses.

“[Working for Research & Innovation] is a big thing on their resume and it really does carry some weight. Greenhouses are always doing miniature trials; they’re always tweaking things, so if they have someone who’s done that, it’s awesome.”

The business supplied 156 major grocery stores throughout Ontario with high-end bedding plants. The couple also operated their own hydroponic lettuce business.

After 13 years, the family sold the business when Schulze accepted a full-time position at Niagara College, and his wife went on to McMaster University’s Population Health Research Institute.

Soon after arriving at NC, Schulze assisted his colleague Bill MacDonald in creating the Commercial Cannabis Production program, the first post-secondary credential of its kind in Canada. He also taught a number of courses including Cannabis Crop Methods, Cannabis Production Science and Technical Analysis of Cannabis.

Executing a cannabis program had certainly never entered his radar.

“I didn’t know anything about the stuff … never used it, never grown it on my own,” he says, adding he just viewed it as another crop and learned everything he could and applied basic science principles.

He has since left the cannabis program and returned to the NC greenhouse teaching a full schedule of courses to Greenhouse Technician students. Forever the scientist, Schulze has made a point to include applied research learning into his greenhouse classroom.

During one course-based project, Schulze’s students trialed a Jiffy® pre-manufactured propagation pellet and used different recipes of organic fertilizer, premixed, compressed and dried. The class grew tomatoes, peppers and lettuce in various pellets, measuring fresh weight, dry weight and then sent a final report to the company.

That report turned out to be very useful for Jiffy®. Says Schulze: “Three months after we finished the trial, I got a call from a lettuce grower wanting clarification on something because Jiffy® had used our report to sell their product to that company.”

As for the students, it gave them a chance to learn about organic methods, a medium that proves challenging to teach hands-on in class, given the complications with growing and lack of control over the nutrients.

Most recently, Schulze’s class has undertaken a project with Walker Industries to help determine alternatives to the waste issue of rockwool, a mineral wool product that is typically used as a growing medium for hydroponic vegetables and is not biodegradable.

Students are conducting a growing trial to test the quality of different finished rockwool (Grodan/compost) blends to provide a better understanding of the quality of blends and how they can be used in growing.

“It’s interesting and the students like it because they are very conscious about being environmentally responsible,” he says. “The Walker project is all about trying to do something constructive with the waste product from the greenhouse industry.”

In working on these types of applied research through the College’s Research & Innovation division, Schulze says students who are involved with these projects definitely have a leg up when starting their careers.

“[Working for Research & Innovation] is a big thing on their resume and it really does carry some weight,” he notes. “Greenhouses are always doing miniature trials; they’re always tweaking things, so if they have someone who’s done that, it’s awesome.”

When he’s not at the College greenhouse or teaching, Schulze “gets his thrills” flying radio-controlled airplanes – a hobby since he was 10 years old. He also restores vintage cars and during nicer weather, can be found on the water in his sailboat.

He and his wife live in Vineland with their two children and dog.