BRAIN Alliance emerges as model for research and innovation success that leads to impact

Big Data
Nick Cercone

Back in 2015, computer science Professor Nick Cercone, of the Lassonde School of Engineering at York University, had a brilliant idea to connect the best Ontario academic researchers with private and public sector organizations to collaboratively narrow the research and innovation gap. Building on this idea with others, he created the Big Data Research, Analytics and Information Network (BRAIN) Alliance, an Ontario network of universities, and public and private institutions working together to conduct state-of-the-art translational research on large-scale data sets.

The network was made possible by investments from participating universities and public/private partners, as well as an Ontario Research Fund (ORF) – Research Excellence Grant. Total funding, which added up to $10 million, came from three sources: the ORF grant ($3.5 million), private sector partners ($3.5 million) and universities ($3.5 million).

Aijun An

After Cercone’s untimely death in December 2015, his colleague and Co-Principal Investigator of BRAIN, York Professor Aijun An, took the reins. Together with Project Manager Laura Zeno, the BRAIN Executive Committee and more than 20 co-investigators, An maintains the high standards established by Cercone.

Exponential growth, research outputs abound

Infographic shows the details of the BRAIN Alliance research outputs

Today, in autumn 2017, 21 collaborative research projects operate under the BRAIN umbrella, led by researchers from York, OCAD University, Ryerson University and the University of Toronto. This work is undertaken in collaboration with many partners, including the Globe and Mail, Dapasoft, IBM, Empress Software, iNAGO, Manifold Data Mining Inc., St. Michael’s Hospital and the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Each unique collaboration works to address at least one of the four challenges in big data analytics and visualization:

  • discovering useful and actionable patterns from dynamic data;
  • data-driven optimization and recommendation;
  • cloud computing for large-scale data analysis; and
  • visualization of interactive data and pattern analysis.

Research outputs of the BRAIN Alliance include 93 highly qualified personnel, 19 prototypes developed, four patents in progress, 15 inventions disclosed, 95 papers written and 43 presentations at conferences, symposia and workshops, as illustrated in the infographic.

Impact case study 1: the Globe and Mail

Due to this rigour over the past two-and-a-half years, BRAIN researchers have made significant progress in big data research and development. For example, with the Globe and Mail, which operates in a highly competitive industry where online media and data analytics are key factors in generating revenue, BRAIN researchers at York and OCAD have developed an innovative recommendation engine. (A recommendation engine, also known as a recommender system, is software that analyzes available data to make suggestions for something that a website user might be interested in, such as a book, a video or a piece of news, among other possibilities.) This engine successfully solved the “cold start” problem  ̶  a common problem. Due to this success, it is currently used as a component in the Globe and Mail’s online news recommender system.

The BRAIN researchers also developed the Sophi Heads-up Display (HUD) for the editors at the Globe and Mail. This is an analytics tool that overlays relevant data about articles’ performances onto the Globe and Mail website. The HUD has been integrated into a larger suite of analytics tools and is currently in use by editorial staff to better understand user engagement. The Globe and Mail has initiated plans to commercialize this product and is currently discussing implementation with other North American news media outlets.

Gordon Edall, director of Globe Labs, the Globe and Mail, explains the impact of this new tool: “Our ongoing collaboration with York and OCAD is enabling us to break new ground in terms of the things we can do to help our readers find the stories that most interest them. We’re looking forward to what we will do next with the help of BRAIN and its researchers.”

Impact case study 2: Dapasoft

A second example of BRAIN’s success comes to the fore: Dapasoft is a Toronto-based IT software group with with a strong health-care focus. Innovative research and development is key to their success. BRAIN researchers at York successfully applied their expertise in machine learning  ̶  a method of data analysis that allows computers to find hidden insights without being explicitly programmed where to look  ̶  to Dapasoft’s health-care integration product suite. They continue to develop artificial intelligence (AI) components on social media platforms to enrich Dapasoft’s peer support product offering.

Working with the BRAIN Alliance has provided invaluable insights and publication on the Dapasoft Surgical Checklist initiative.

Stephen Chan, CEO, Dapasoft, describes the benefits of partnering with the BRAIN researchers: “It is a very exciting time for technology companies as we are all facing new innovation and ideas on a daily basis. Partnering with BRAIN provides Dapasoft with a pool of smart and creative talents. We are looking forward to continuing the partnership with BRAIN in the future.”

Impact case study 3: IBM

Great progress has also been achieved with IBM Spectrum Computing, a division of IBM that develops distributed high-performance computing solutions. Multiple collaborations with BRAIN and IBM focus on developing faster big data solutions and innovative applications to help IBM maintain a competitive role in this sector. For example, as a result of the research accomplished in the project “3D Scalable Video Cloud Transcoder for Wireless Multicasts,” a patent application has been filed by IBM.

Impact case study 4: Training, networking, career-based mentoring

BRAIN also provides training, networking and career opportunities for students and highly qualified personnel (HQP). Many BRAIN members have accomplished milestones in their careers as a result of working on BRAIN research. For example, Morteza Zihayat  ̶  a BRAIN Alliance member since the beginning, first as a PhD student at York and then as a postdoctoral researcher  ̶  recently became an assistant professor at the Ted Rogers School of Management, Ryerson University.

Zihayat discusses the impact that BRAIN has made to his career: “Working as a research fellow in the BRAIN community was a great experience and opportunity to engage and initiate in multiple research topics and collaborations. A community of highly qualified experts and well-known companies always encouraged me to explore new fields, to get a broader perspective and to bring together new ideas and methods in order to solve real-life problems in my field. BRAIN gave me the freedom and creativity to think outside the box on research problems and helped to prepare me for my new position. In my experience, it is rare to find such a unique combination of industry and academia. This combination helped me to build a professional network both in academia and industry.”

More information on BRAIN projects can be found on the website. Additional mentoring success stories can be found on the website’s Success Stories page.