Category Archives: Research & Innovation

Career built by NC knowledge plus R&I network team

Ken Dubois

Ken Dubois finished the Computer Programmer Analyst Co-op program at the end of 2019, officially graduating the following spring. Building on his studies and his time spent during his co-op working as a research assistant with the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre team, Ken is now employed as a software developer at First Canadian Title Company Limited (FCT).
Read on to learn about his journey to the workforce.

Tell us about where you work and your position/title:

I work as a software developer at First Canadian Title Company Limited (FCT).

Describe your role and what you like about it:

I build and maintain software products with the development team at FCT. These are mostly web-based projects, and range from public facing applications, business-to-business, internal apps, and everything in between!

There are several things I like about working at FCT – the benefits and compensation are competitive, employee job satisfaction is considered a high priority, and working arrangements (particularly during the pandemic) have been relatively flexible. The thing I like most, however, is that employees are given significant opportunity to expand their skills while on the job. This comes in several forms, which include formal and informal training, the chance to work on ‘proof-of-concept’ projects to learn and evaluate new technologies, and (most importantly) working alongside a group of highly skilled developers who value sharing their knowledge and experience.

How has your experience with Research & Innovation helped prepare you for your current role?

My experience with R&I prepared me for my current role in two important ways. First, it was a gentle introduction for me to the software developer’s most fundamental skill – the ability to learn independently while on the job. There’s a real limit to the volume of information that can be delivered in a classroom. This is particularly true in software development where the variety of things to know and rate of change is really high. At R&I, I had a chance to work on projects that challenged me to get comfortable starting from scratch with languages, frameworks, and strategies of organization that I was unfamiliar with (and in some cases, had never even heard of before).

The second way R&I prepared me for my current position is simple: the person that recommended me for the job at FCT was a former colleague at R&I. Building a network of people who know what you are like to work with isn’t something that you necessarily think about as a student, but it can be one of the most valuable features of taking a position at a place like R&I.

A memorable applied research project during your time at R&I?

As a software developer, you don’t often find yourself traipsing through vineyards while controlling a robot the size of a washing machine mounted with a 4K video camera. Working on estimating crop yields using computer vision was a singularly unique experience that I will remember for a very long time.

What led you to Niagara College in the first place?

I was working as a graphic designer and had a foot in basic web development for a few years. When I finally decided to take programming seriously, Niagara College was a good fit – their courses were focused on how to build software projects and were less abstract than computer science courses offered by other post-secondary institutions in the area.

Most memorable experience at NC?

The keystone project at the end of second year had us building a project for a real-world client. This was something of a trial by fire. It meant client meetings, design, implementation, and deployment all with relatively little oversight. It was a lot of fun, frenetically stressful, took the lives of many, many cups of coffee but everyone on the team came out the other end as a much more confident and capable developer.

Is there a particular mentor at either R&I or a faculty member who influenced you?

Each of my colleagues at R&I were mentors to me in one way or another, but I think Sarah Lepp (team lead) and Dr. Mike Duncan (research chair) deserve particular recognition. Many of our projects had either scientific or mathematical components that were way over my head. Mike and Sarah (besides being exceptionally knowledgeable – I still haven’t managed to stump either of them!) simplified problems into logical, actionable steps that allowed the development team to solve problems that at first glance seemed completely untenable.

“Building a network of people who know what you are like to work with isn’t something that you necessarily think about as a student, but it can be one of the most valuable features of taking a position at a place like R&I.”

What advice would you impart to current research students or future alumni?

Set at least a little time aside every day to learn and extend your skills – even (or maybe especially) if it’s not something directly related to what you are working on. Don’t work for an employer that doesn’t allow you time for this during the workday; continual learning is part of being a professional and will pay compounding dividends to both you and the company you work for.

(Also – never pay full price for a Udemy course – they have crazy sales on nearly everything at least once a month!)

After being in the workforce, what have you learned?

Being able to work effectively with others will make you more productive than anything else. The limiting factor for this isn’t being pleasant (although this helps), it is communicating as clearly as possible, taking on more responsibility than you might feel is your fair share (the people you are working with probably do a lot more than you think) and engaging in disagreements respectfully with the intent of getting to the best possible outcome (rather than proving that you’re right or the other person is wrong).

Proudest achievement since graduating?

All my proudest moments have been from watching my daughter [Polly] grow up. That, and being interviewed for the R&I newsletter of course.

What are you passionate about at the moment?

I’ve been very interested in Block Chain development with the Ethereum protocol recently. The learning curve is not nearly as steep as I would have expected, and I think the technology has a lot of potential use-cases that haven’t nearly been exploited to their full potential.

Interests outside of work?

When I’m not working, I am reading, playing guitar (badly), watching terrible Netflix shows (having already watched all the good ones), or trying to catch a surprisingly fast one-year-old.

If you could have a billboard message seen by many, what would it say?

Remember to have fun!

2021: A year of perseverance


As I reflect on this past year, and all the challenges thrown at every one of us, there
is something that stands out in my mind: The examples of sheer creativity and perseverance from the small businesses we have had the privilege of serving at our research Centres. I am awe-inspired at how SMEs continue to ride this rollercoaster, adjusting not only to pandemic-related impacts, but also pivoting entire business models to remain inventive and competitive.

The same enthusiasm can also be found within our Research & Innovation division.
I am incredibly proud of the entire team for their tireless dedication in assisting our industry partners through these challenging times, while jointly providing students with meaningful work experiences.

Please enjoy this month’s newsletter, then take a moment to look back on an inspiring 2021.
View our past newsletters here.

Best wishes for the holidays, and for health and happiness throughout the coming year!

Krystle Grimaldi

Director, Research & Innovation

Closer to the frozen food aisle

Mambella’s Market owner Tina Brisbin is no stranger to adapting to change in her 14 years of serving fresh Italian cuisine in the Waterloo area. However, it doesn’t make it any easier.

This past June, Brisbin was forced to close her café/catering company due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She pivoted, decided to wade into the frozen retail market for her popular products and looked to the Canadian Food & Wine Institute (CFWI) Innovation Centre for their expertise in navigating the frozen waters.

Mambella’s has several authentic Italian dishes, including traditional lasagna, cannelloni and mac and cheese. But their unique signature dish and the one for which Brisbin requested help from the CFWI Innovation Centre is her popular gluten-free, vegetarian sweet potato lasagna. It’s also a product not found in the grocery store freezers, she points out.

During the applied research project, the CFWI Innovation Centre food science team conducted experimentation to enhance the taste, aroma and appearance of the sweet potato lasagna. Analysis was completed on the lasagna’s vegan marinara sauce, and recommendations were offered to provide a more precise scale-up for a fresher and more predictable flavour.

The research team also conducted trials on the tricky sweet potato process that mimics the pasta noodle in the traditional product. Improvement recommendations were made for the overall manufacturing process of the lasagna as well.

“They made changes to the sauce in a way that enhanced the potato and lasagna taste overall – really boosting the flavour,” says Brisbin. “As well as making the product more flavourful, they also made the cooking of the product so much better, especially the sweet potato.”

The CFWI Innovation Centre experts also guided the business owner through the complicated waters of securing a co-packer to get her product to the retail shelf during the project.

“If it weren’t for programs like the one at Niagara College, I would not even have been able to get the information about how the industry works. I would be behind a year’s worth of knowledge.

Brisbin says she now realizes the complexities and challenges that smaller food companies face when there’s a high volume minimum that most co-packers require, but that most smaller companies can’t afford. She says there are also ingredient and packaging compromises that need to be made.

“If it weren’t for programs like the one at Niagara College, I would not even have been able to get the information about how the industry works. I would be behind a year’s worth of knowledge.”

Brisbin continues to lean on her entrepreneurial spirit and resilient nature.

More than a decade ago, Mambella’s was a thriving café across the street from BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion (RIM) and close to the University of Waterloo. Enjoying a constant line-up, the small iconic lunch favourite served more than 200 people a day. But then RIM laid off most of its employees, and customer numbers dropped to about 20 per day.

Brisbin pivoted then, expanded her thriving catering business, opened three more cafe locations in two cities, and hired 26 employees.

In the fall of 2019, she also invested in an entrepreneur accelerator course run by Dragon’s Den investor Arlene Dickinson, where she worked with food mentors and business leaders. While there, Brisbin says global culinary expert and chef Christine Couvelier strongly suggested she take her frozen food to the major retail market. The idea stayed in the background.

Before the pandemic, Mambella’s was gearing up to do the “best year ever.”

But business diminished as the pandemic carried on, and with serving only take-out and frozen foods on a small scale, Brisbin had to make a difficult business decision once she realized that the flow of customers was not soon coming back. She had to let all her staff go.

“There was the catering side of things with some funerals, but since there were no ‘events’ happening, hard decisions had to be made,” she recalls about the decision to close her last main bricks and mortar location earlier this summer.

Brisbin is now navigating the retail market to get her frozen sweet potato lasagna to the public. “I still believe that I have a phenomenal product; experts tell me I do… I just have to figure out how to get it out there,” she adds.

This project was made possible through the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC-IRAP), which provides up to 20 hours of access to the equipment, facilities, and expertise of a Technology Access Centre (TAC) to solve a specific business or technical challenge.

To discover the resources and capabilities visit the Canadian Food & Wine Institute (CFWI) Innovation Centre website.

Distilling the spirit of innovation

On the heels of landing a major Dragon’s Den deal for its Sobrii 0-Gin product (Canada’s first non-alcoholic distilled gin), DistillX Beverages Inc. is gearing up for another round of success with its newest distilled non-alcoholic spirit – Sobrii 0-Tequila.

Launched Oct. 1, Sobrii 0-Tequila (pronounced zero-tequila) is the Toronto-based company’s second beverage innovation project with Niagara College’s Canadian Food & Wine Institute (CFWI) Innovation Centre. The research team was also instrumental in the flavour development and distillation process for Sobrii 0-Gin, with the College getting a shout-out on the CBC’s Dragon’s Den episode by DistillX founder and president Bob Huitema.

Sobrii (Latin for “sober”) distilled non-alcoholic spirits are made with all-natural botanicals and extracts, contains no sugar, artificial flavours, sweeteners or calories. And no hangover.

The decision to develop the 0-Tequila was easy for Huitema, considering the ‘margarita’ (made with tequila) has enjoyed the No. 1 cocktail spot in the United States for the past decade. Further, Forbes lists sales of tequila jumping more than 46 percent in 2020 – not to mention the massive popularity of celebrities lending their names as branding.

“And yes, I do love tequila,” says Huitema.


“It was very challenging, in part because the overwhelming taste of tequila is ethanol. People associate the alcoholic burn as part of the tequila taste.”

While other non-alcoholic tequilas are on the market, many have skipped the distilling process and just include blended botanicals. With Sobrii spirits, the botanicals are macerated (soaked) in alcohol for a period of time and are further distilled or diluted, ensuring alcohol levels are below 0.5% ABV.

“We believe distillation as part of the manufacturing process assists in providing with a premium product that will not be mistaken for flavoured water,” says Huitema, adding the spirits are produced in small batches at a Stratford craft distillery.

While the distilling process (which is a proprietary method) is similar for both the 0-Gin and 0-Tequila spirits, the unique flavour development of the tequila was definitely more difficult, says Huitema.

“It was very challenging, in part because the overwhelming taste of tequila is ethanol. People associate the alcoholic burn as part of the tequila taste,” he explains. “Several of the ingredients replicate in part the heat of the alcohol in a cocktail. Jalapeno is part of it and we include other spices as well.” 

The 0-Tequila uses botanicals such as agave, jalapeno, coriander, black pepper and Canadian Ginseng.

On working with the CFWI Innovation Centre team, Huitema says, “I highly value working with Ana [Ana Cristina Vega-Lugo, PhD, scientific manager] and the team. The process and ingredients are very difficult to finesse into something that resembles alcoholic spirits in a cocktail. The experimentation required to develop the products is well-suited to the research teams’ skillset.” 

The Sobrii 0-Tequila is sold in most places that sell 0-Gin, including online at and, and retailers such as Pusateri’s, Cocktail Emporium and some specialty retailers. The company even offers a sampler pack to mimic the tart notes of grapefruit for a Paloma and spiced orange ginger ale for a margarita.

The project received funding through the College and Community Innovation Program (CCIP) Extend Innovation Enhancement (IE) Grant, from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). 


This is one example of the types of technical services offered by the CFWI Innovation Centre.

To discover other resources and capabilities, visit the CFWI Innovation Centre website.

POSITION AVAILABLE: Social Media Research Assistant with our Research & Innovation team

Social Media Research Assistant

The successful candidate will support SONAMI with its business to business social media strategy. As the Social Media Research Assistant for SONAMI the successful candidate will work on a number of  projects to assess, plan and design social media activities for the Network in order to grow the reach  and awareness of the Network.  As Social Media Research Assistant the candidate will have a comprehensive skill set to work with SONAMI staff on Social Media projects including the technical skills and ability to create social media  content. The Social Media Research Assistant will report to the SONAMI Project Manager. 

See the full Social Media Research Assistant job posting. To apply, please email your resume, cover letter, transcript and class schedule to [email protected] and reference ‘Social Media Research Assistant’ in the subject line. The deadline to apply is Friday, December 10th, 2021 at 12pm.

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

Sales & marketing rep credits time at R&I

Kate Jonker graduated in April 2021 from Niagara College’s Business – Sales & Marketing program. She was a research assistant with Research & Innovation’s Business & Commercialization Solutions team from October 2020 to April 2021. Kate is employed with Martek Supply Corp. in Burlington as a sales and marketing representative. 

Tell us about where you work:

Martek Supply Corp. in Burlington is southern Ontario’s premier wholesaler for landscape products and construction materials. We provide customer service and expert knowledge to landscape contractors, general contractors and landscape suppliers. Some of our products that we sell include landscape lighting, audio, artificial turf, geosynthetics, landscape fabrics, drainage supplies, aluminum edging, site servicing supplies, pond supplies and surface drainage solutions.

Describe your role and what you like about it:

My job as sales and marketing representative is quite broad, and I’m involved in a number of different aspects of the company. Martek is a small business, so my role varies from inside and outside sales work, which includes answering the phone, working with contractors to find the right products for their projects, quoting, emailing, performing business development activities, coordinating deliveries, meeting with contractors and visiting project sites.

I also look after the marketing responsibilities, which includes managing social media efforts, promoting business events, coordinating website development and creating marketing materials like brochures and product catalogs, etc. 

I love my job because I appreciate the fast-paced work environment and the variety of work tasks that come with it. I’m constantly switching gears from marketing to sales and everything in between. For example, with a recent sales job, I had a customer that I brought in from a cold call and I worked with them on a project that required looking at the job drawings, quoting the correct product, and coordinating the ordering of the special product and delivery. A recent marketing project involves designing and updating our 2022 product guide that we’ll give out to customers at the next Landscape Ontario show that takes place every year in January. 

How has your experience with Research & Innovation helped prepare you for your current role?

R&I was a fundamental step in gaining real work experience that today assists me greatly in my job roles. Without that experience in market research and social media strategies I have my doubts I would work where I do today. Working at R&I allowed me to stay up-to-date with the most recent trends, social media strategies, marketing strategies and apply it all to help other businesses succeed in their industry. Today, I get to do all this in the landscape industry and help my company gain larger market shares, grow our social media platforms, perform product research and ultimately grow sales. 

A memorable applied research project during your time at R&I?

I was involved in many projects at Research & Innovation, and every project gave me more knowledge and expertise about the different topics I worked on. The most memorable project was working with Tatiana from Heartsease Nutrition. I was the research lead on this project, advising and guiding Tatiana when it came to target markets, competitive analysis, effective product shipping, social media platforms and sales strategies.

What led you to Niagara College in the first place?

I went to Niagara College because it was the only college that had a program focused on Sales & Marketing that was close to home. I was also the recipient of the Open House scholarship!

Most memorable experience at NC?

Because of the pandemic, my time at NC got cut short and I was only on campus for my first year of college. That first year was the most influential of my two years because I got to meet new classmates who became my friends, physically work on group projects, compete in marketing events and enjoy normal college life.

The most memorable experience was probably when my group and I pitched our Dragon’s Den new product (Pharma Drug Vending Machines). We spent long hours coming up with a product to pitch to the panel and we ended up doing very well in class.

I also really enjoyed hitting the gym and spending time at the Armoury with my college friends during that first year. 

“Working at R&I allowed me to stay up-to-date with the most recent trends, social media strategies, marketing strategies and apply it all to help other businesses succeed in their industry.… without that experience in market research I have my doubts I would work where I do today.”

Is there a particular mentor who influenced you?

Paula Reile was not only my project manager at R&I but also my mentor who helped me establish myself in my personal and professional development. In our weekly one-on-one meetings, she would provide helpful direction on projects but also listen and give guidance on an academic level. Paula was willing to listen to my concerns about finding a future career in a pandemic and help guide me in my job search. I have Paula to thank for a wonderful R&I experience; she truly did influence me in finding a career path that I love.

What advice would you impart to current research students or future alumni?

The best advice I can offer to any research student is to never be afraid to ask questions and bounce your thoughts off other research assistants or your project manager. Your best work can come from collaboration with others if you take the time to listen to other opinions. Meet with other teammates, ask questions, have brainstorm sessions and you will succeed in your projects.

After being in the workforce, what have you learned?

I think I have learned how important it is to build relationships with customers and coworkers. It is essential in sales to provide top-notch customer service and create trust with your customers/clients.

Proudest achievement since graduating?

Obtaining employment in an industry that I have a strong passion for and developing my knowledge in the workplace using the transferable skills I learned at R&I.

What are you passionate about at the moment?

I’m passionate about selling landscape products and providing the best possible customer service I can. I’m also passionate about my family life and boyfriend of three years, Joel.

Interests outside of work?

When I’m not busy at work, I enjoy sports, cooking and long walks. I play in soccer, baseball and volleyball leagues and I love watching the Maple Leafs hockey team. I am a big foodie and enjoy making recipes from scratch and sharing them with my family.

If you could have a billboard message seen by many, what would it say?

Always do your best 110% of the time.