Ahoy! Research-in-a-box ships from Kelowna to Montreal

Considering the Canadian marine shipping industry is valued at $30 billion, and it is a source of income for nearly 100,000 jobs*, shipping splashes across the nation.

As trade volumes increase, terminal inspectors have less time to conduct container-quality inspections, exposing a vulnerability for the Canadian shipping industry.

Enter CANSCAN, a young company that uses artificial intelligence to secure shipping containers.

CANSCAN is developing an automated shipping container inspection system using high-definition cameras and machine-learning software to predict maintenance and other aspects of the containers.

The company, founded by entrepreneur Jennifer Ivens and based out of the CENTECH incubator powered by École de technologie supérieure in Montreal, partners with Mitacs to propel its R&D. After already working with several Mitacs interns, it has recently signed a large-scale agreement to hire several more to work on various parts of the automated inspection systems.

The project defines roles for 25 internships, and each research intern works on a specific area of the system, permitting them to apply their scholarly engineering learnings to solve real-world problems.

By working in an office environment, supported by the research supervision of Professor Zheng Liu of the University of British Columbia (UBC) School of Engineering, the interns gain valuable skills that enable them to transition from academia to the workplace.


Partnering with Mitacs

Ivens explains that when starting CANSCAN, she sought resources and discovered how Mitacs powers innovation in small businesses. “Mitacs was a really good resource. I saw what Mitacs offered — and I applied for everything available,” says Jennifer.

“From my experience,” she continues, “companies are often afraid to work with academia, out of a preconceived notion that it takes too much time and takes too much paperwork. Or they may be afraid that the intellectual property [IP] will be stolen or must be shared.”

On the contrary for CANSCAN and UBC, they came to quick agreement about publications and time spent on R&D and the subsequent ownership of IP.

“A lot of companies are missing the boat, no pun intended as we’re a shipping company,” she laughs, “about working with academia. There’s tremendous potential to scale up R&D leveraging this partnership.”


The research crew

CANSCAN’S research team, under the supervision of Professor Liu, initially comprised one Master’s student, two PhD students, and one post-doctoral fellow. The researchers worked on various aspects of ensuring the safety and integrity of shipping containers including condition assessment, safety and security, code identification, machine vision, deep learning, and cloud computing.

Having worked on a few Mitacs-industry projects since 2016, Professor Liu notes that CANSCAN is the largest Mitacs project he has collaborated on so far, and he wants to see the success of CANSCAN.

“Working with CANSCAN has helped improve my research program by enabling my students to understand what constitutes a real problem for industry, and how research can help,” says Professor Liu. “To improve their research, they have access to real data, and they get to apply their research solutions to real problems.”

Speaking with both CANSCAN CEO, Jennifer Ivens, and Professor Liu, the team is a top-notch crew.

She explains, “The major reason I chose to work with UBC, despite the distance, is due to Professor Liu’s competency in the subject matter, dedication, and ‘can do attitude’ to the project.”

She notes that logistically, it would have been simpler to work with a university in the same time zone, however, the UBC Okanagan-based team demonstrated superior commitment, motivation, and more a closely aligned research interest.

And Jennifer and Professor Liu both referenced their local Mitacs-staff support.

“This partnership is also thanks to our Mitacs representative, Gabriel (Garcia-Curiel), who was impressed with Prof. Liu. He rightfully recommended that I choose him as a partner,” she says.

And Professor Liu lauded the efforts of his local Mitacs representative, Jennifer Tedman-Jones in the success, noting her help in preparing the application and her consistent availability for himself and his students.


Crossing the bridge from academia to industry

Liu notes that the partnership helps him think about how academia trains highly-qualified professionals for industry and their future. Typically, academia prepares students to write a dissertation and prepare a defense.

He notes that with work-integrated learning experience, his students consistently gain a better understanding of how their technical skill applies to real world problems; they learn how to work with other team members; and they learn the vital necessity of collaborating on AI.

Ran Zhang, a PhD student, from the Hubei Province of China, arrived in Kelowna for graduate studies, and then travelled to Montreal for his Mitacs internship with CANSCAN earlier this year.

With expertise in electrical engineering, computer vision, and image processing, Ran is developing software to automatically read container types, numbers, and codes embedded in the backdoor of the containers. The artificial intelligence enables automatic detection of shipping containers’ security logs, and photographs whether the container is locked, ensuring secure transportation.

“I have learned a lot from the project, so far,” Ran explained, six months in. “Professor Liu gives us lots of instruction and provides a whole picture of the project. Within the office, we have collaborations with our team members and Jennifer has very good control and management skills.”

Since his term working with CANSCAN in Montreal ended in July, Ran has returned to Kelowna to continue his PhD coursework.

“The program is pretty fantastic,” he says. “There is great collaboration with industry and academia, a lot of innovation, and progress through the team.”

Zhila Bahrami, another PhD student intern placed at CANSCAN, spent one week in Kelowna prior to arriving in Montreal for her internship. With a degree in Computer Vision, she previously worked as a university instructor, teaching courses related to image processing and computer vision.

Now her research focusses on image processing. Specifically, she investigates the corrosion of steel containers and evaluates what percentage has corroded. This is important because port authorities need to know whether containers are healthy or not.

“I think it is very good collaboration between Mitacs, UBC, and CANSCAN,” says Zhila. “This is a meaningful experience.”

“Previously I didn’t have any business experience,” she continues. “This has improved my business ability and allows me to understand how I can apply my knowledge.”

“I prefer to work in business, as I prefer different kinds of challenges and to develop my problem-solving ability with applications to real-world challenges.”


Award-winning combo

If recent awards are any indication of CANSCAN’S success, the company’s a big winner. They won Startupfest’s Best Pitch and Best of Fest prizes, and Sustainable Technology Development Canada’s Green Fund award in 2019. CANSCAN has received further public and industry validation with news coverage from Le Journal de Montréal, and by launching a Marine Tech Montreal Network that brought together 150 industry professionals to the company’s inaugural tech demonstration event. CANSCAN was one of only four companies selected to participate in the L-Spark Secure IoT Accelerator program in Ottawa.

Next on the horizon, the company will be applying for funding through the SCALE.AI supercluster for a national project that includes two Canadian port agencies, two Canadian government entities, and an international terminal operator.

Best wishes for smooth sailing!


 *Source: Clear Seas Centre, an independent not-for-profit that researches safe and sustainable shipping in Canada. 

Mitacs thanks the Government of Canada and the Government of Quebec for their support of the Accelerate research internship in this story. Across Canada, the Accelerate program also receives support from Alberta Innovates, the Government of British Columbia, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, the Government of Prince Edward Island, the Government of Saskatchewan, and Research Manitoba.



Mitacs empowers Canadian innovation through effective partnerships that deliver solutions to our most pressing problems. By driving economic growth and productivity, we create meaningful change to improve quality of life for all Canadians.