Two U of R students share the effects of war in their home countries on their lives and how a new fundraising priority, Project Resilience, will make a difference to students from lands of strife.

The first thing that struck Zohra Zahir when she came to Regina in 2018 was the clean air and the peaceful atmosphere.

“I've been in huge cities for the past ten years,” she says. “The moment I reached Regina I was like ‘Yes that's the one.' You want some peace; you want beautiful Wascana.”

Zahir is from Herat, Afghanistan, near its border with Iran in the northwest. The daughter of a forensic pathologist, she grew interested in science after reading about stem cells in a magazine one day. Before moving to Canada in 2018, Zahir lived in Delhi, India, for seven years, studying for her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in environmental sciences and genetics, respectively.

She left behind six siblings and her parents, who at the time, had already experienced 10 years of Afghanistan’s slow democratization under the influence of the U.S. military. After the attacks on the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001, and the subsequent invasion of Iraq in 2003 by the U.S., the Taliban, a fundamentalist, militant and jihadist government, were driven out of Afghanistan.

“They are trapped in their own country,” says Zahir. “We are all confused and we don't know what will happen like even tomorrow.”

In the years afterwards, Zahir enjoyed a freedom of movement that, particularly for women, was forbidden during Taliban rule. She remembers driving all over with her sisters, witnessing women flock to university and become influential political leaders. She and her eldest sister, now a wind turbine engineer in Germany, went to study and live abroad, leaving their family behind. Zahir’s father was committed to staying in his country, to building a better life for his family in the community he knew. Then in August 2021, Zahir’s second year of doctoral study at the University of Regina, it all changed.

Science doctoral student Zohra Zahir says her home country of Afghanistan is facing an uncertain future.
Science doctoral student Zohra Zahir says her home country of Afghanistan is facing an uncertain future.

“They are trapped in their own country,” says Zahir. “We are all confused and we don't know what will happen like even tomorrow.”

When U.S. troops pulled out of Afghanistan last summer, the democratic, U.S.-supported Afghan government collapsed quickly and the Taliban took over once more.

Now, Zahir’s two younger sisters cannot go to school, the older having almost finished medical school and the younger just completed grade 6, the maximum grade the Taliban allows for young women. Due to the nature of her father’s work for the previous government, Zahir’s family has kept a low profile to keep themselves safe. She says her family’s main response to the return of the Taliban has mostly been shock at the abrupt change. Zahir keeps in touch via text since they don’t have a good internet connection.

22 September 2021, Afghanistan, Kabul: Young Taliban fighters on the back of a pick up truck patrol on the streets of Kabul. (Credit Image: © Oliver Weiken/dpa via ZUMA Press)
22 September 2021, Afghanistan, Kabul: Young Taliban fighters on the back of a pick up truck patrol on the streets of Kabul. (Credit Image: © Oliver Weiken/dpa via ZUMA Press)

The stress she feels due to the uncertainty of her family’s situation, now into its ninth month of duration, is compounded by guilt over living far away in a peaceful country and pursuing her passion in academia. While her sisters miss going to school and walks outside, she continues to study and admits to staying in sometimes, like anyone who just doesn’t feel like going out.

“You're in two different situations all the time,” she says. “There’s conflict inside you. You don't know how to react to different situations. If it's a good one, should I be so happy, or should I feel guilty that I'm happy?”

Terror in Ukraine

Several days after Russian troops invaded Ukraine on February 24, Nadiia Komarnytska was in a video chat with her cousin when they were disconnected. Normally, Komarnytska would just blame poor internet connection, but with the outbreak of war, the possibility of something far worse having happened induced panic.

“I know a lot of Ukrainians here,” said Komarnytska. “During those first months, I don't think we were sleeping.”

Komarnytska’s family—her cousins, uncle, aunts and grandparents—lives in western Ukraine, an area that is not currently the centre of military action but has still felt the affects of war.

Recent science graduate Nadiia Komarnytska is from the Ukrainian region of Ternopil.
Recent science graduate Nadiia Komarnytska is from the Ukrainian region of Ternopil.

At the time of our interview, in the region beside Komarnytska’s home region of Ternopil, the International Airport in Lviv was bombarded. Situated between the Russian ship that shot the missiles from the Black Sea and its target in Lviv, her grandparents heard the missiles as they flew overhead. Every evening they turn out their lights to avoid detection from Russian planes that attack at night.

For the first month of the conflict, Komarnytska says she lost all sense of time. Endlessly scrolling Ukrainian news, texting and talking with family, and then getting up early to go to work made for an exhausting daily routine. Even now, the constant barrage of horrific scenes is a shock that doesn’t wear off.

“At the beginning, it was very hard to believe,” she says. “I felt anger and denial that anything like this can happen in the 21st century. People are dying, civilians are dying, children are dying. I think it was the hardest part to see dead children. And then I had anxiety, depression. More questions than answers.”

The widow cries at the coffin of volunteer soldier Oleksandr Makhov, 36 a well-known Ukrainian journalist, killed by the Russian troops, at St Michael cathedral in Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, May 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
The widow cries at the coffin of volunteer soldier Oleksandr Makhov, 36 a well-known Ukrainian journalist, killed by the Russian troops, at St Michael cathedral in Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, May 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Komarnytska moved to Regina in 2013, joining her parents and brother, who had already been in the city for a year. After finishing up three years of medical school in Ukraine, Komarnytska took several English language courses and then began her degree in biochemistry at the University of Regina. Set to convocate this fall, Komarnytska has been working full-time as a lab scientist at the Roy Romanow Provincial Laboratory for the last nine months.

Project Resilience will be distributed in the form of scholarships equal to tuition and course fees to students affected by war or other forms of political violence in their home countries. In addition, the university will supply a $1,000 stipend per year, to help cover the costs of textbooks and school supplies.

Her summer plans were to visit Ukraine to attend her cousin’s wedding in July, her holidays already booked. She still hopes to go but knows she will have to wait until the war is over, even though what she wants is quite simple.

“To go home and hug all of them, my grandparents,” she says.

Project Resilience

Motivated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Zahir spoke with U of R President Dr. Jeff Keshen in March to share her and her family’s experiences. Project Resilience, a new fund to support students affected by war, was born largely from that conversation, input from members of the University Executive Team and from urging by U of R faculty members to respond to the Ukraine crisis, says Keshen.

Dr. Jeff Keshen, President of the University of Regina was a driving force behind Project Resilience.
Dr. Jeff Keshen, President of the University of Regina was a driving force behind Project Resilience.

Project Resilience will be distributed in the form of scholarships equal to tuition and course fees to students affected by war or other forms of political violence in their home countries. In addition, the university will supply a $1,000 stipend per year, to help cover the costs of textbooks and school supplies.

"We also engaged with student leaders, like Zohra, who are all-too-aware that there are many students across our campus who deal with similar crises in their home countries,” says Keshen.

Four award packages will be available each year, and renewable for three years, so that up to 16 students will be financially supported at any given time. Additionally, the students will be provided with U of R health and well-being supports and services such as academic counselling and UR International supports.

“While the immediate situation in Ukraine prompted us as a community to try to help those who face very difficult, tragic circumstances, we also engaged with student leaders, like Zohra, who are all-too-aware that there are many students across our campus who deal with similar crises in their home countries,” says Keshen.

Zahir admits she desires to connect with other students like herself, to share her experience and hear about theirs. Her own family has been affected by Russian-motivated conflict in the past, with the disappearance of her grandfather at the hands of the Soviet Union, she says. As a result, she can sympathize with Ukrainians.

Zahir says the fund sends a powerful message. With her sisters’ education in Afghanistan restricted by the Taliban, the creation of a fund that helps students prioritize their education is an inspiring counterpoint to the Taliban’s concerted effort to limit education for women.

“The U of R is saying, ‘We know that people don't want you to pursue your dreams, … we have a solution for you,’” she says.

Komarnytska sees the fund as a positive thing for future students, many of whom, she predicts, will come from Ukraine. She also appreciates the creation of a scholarship with an international-student focus, since she personally found it hard to qualify for the scholarships offered at
the U of R.

“For the majority of them, you need to be Canadian or have permanent residency,” she says. “For me it was like, I had a part-time job (during school) then pretty much during summer I worked full-time or even two jobs to get money to pay for university.”

“This is a very good thing and very helpful,” she adds.

Along with helping students avoid the difficult choice of pursuing education or working to support their families back home, for Zahir, Project Resilience undergirds her belief that her study can be a form of resistance.

“Rather than just surviving you are also thinking about more,” she says. “I'm pretty sure lots of people are showing resistance in different ways: they are writing a book, they are going on the news, they are protesting. This is I think how we protest: if you don't want girls to study, we will study harder.”

Komarnytska's summer plans were to visit Ukraine to attend her cousin’s wedding in July. She still hopes to go but knows she will have to wait until the war is over.
Komarnytska's summer plans were to visit Ukraine to attend her cousin’s wedding in July. She still hopes to go but knows she will have to wait until the war is over.

Dr. Keshen acknowledges the scholarships from the fund are a “drop in the bucket compared to what students really need,” but that Project Resilience at least “builds that sort of ethos of saying this is an institution that really values its students by showing support and compassion in ways that are possible for us.”

“This fund recognizes that there are diverse students dealing with far more than just the challenges of their university education,” he adds.

“We started evening prayers every day…just not keeping all this inside of yourself. Even to talk to someone helps,” she says.

While both Zahir and Komarnytska recognize the importance of financial support during crises, having someone to talk to who can empathize with them is also needed.

At the start of the Ukraine-Russian conflict in February, Komarnytska was able to tap into support from the Regina Ukrainian community. Part of St. Michael’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church, she says she and other Ukrainians came together to raise money to send to people back home, some of whom were fighting on the frontlines. It was important to keep talking about what they were experiencing, together.

“We have lots of things in common,” she says, “which is sad but at the same time I wish that we had this kind of community to just come and talk about whatever we are feeling, share our feelings. Somewhere just to go and cry.”

“We started evening prayers every day…just not keeping all this inside of yourself. Even to talk to someone helps,” she says.

Zohra Zahir felt supported by her colleagues at the University of Regina when the Taliban first took over. She said her classmates did not necessarily know what concrete action to take but told her they were there for her and wanted to help.

“That was amazing,” she says.

The commonality of war

But Zahir admits she desires to connect with other students like herself, to share her experience and hear about theirs. Her own family has been affected by Russian-motivated conflict in the past, with the disappearance of her grandfather at the hands of the Soviet Union, she says. As a result, she can sympathize with Ukrainians.

“We have lots of things in common,” she says, “which is sad but at the same time I wish that we had this kind of community to just come and talk about whatever we are feeling, share our feelings. Somewhere just to go and cry.”

Zahir felt supported by her colleagues at the University of Regina when the Taliban first took over. She said her classmates did not necessarily know what concrete action to take but told her they were there for her and wanted to help.
Zahir felt supported by her colleagues at the University of Regina when the Taliban first took over. She said her classmates did not necessarily know what concrete action to take but told her they were there for her and wanted to help.

Despite navigating complex emotions as they cope with the hardships of their loved ones, it doesn’t take Zahir or Komarnytska long to think of a favourite memory of home.

“I love Christmastime,” says Komarnytska. She describes her family’s Ukrainian Christmas supper with 12 dishes, eaten together with her aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents. She also remembers going as a kid to neighbours’ houses to collect money and candy.

“I think that atmosphere, it's warm. It's something special and amazing and then whenever we carol together that's like even more,” she says.

Zahir recalls visiting her father’s village for the first time when she was 13. She was struck by the culture of the region and the respect the community showed her family. A village called Zendejan, which means “alive,” Zahir says it got its name from its stubborn penchant for survival, despite many attacks over thousands of years. People, she says, just keep coming back to it.

While the reality of war makes the future uncertain, one constant, for Komarnytska and Zahir, remains: the desire to return home and see their families, safe and sound.

“I remember suddenly the sun set and for the first time in my life I saw zillions of stars,” she says. “I couldn't believe that many stars, because they didn't have electricity. That is something I have always thought about like, ‘Oh my god, I miss that sky.’”

While the reality of war makes the future uncertain, one constant, for Komarnytska and Zahir, remains: the desire to return home and see their families, safe and sound.

If you would like to help students like Komarnytska and Zahir, why not consider supporting Project Resilience. You can find more information here.

WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 5866 [post_author] => 12 [post_date] => 2022-05-30 09:11:41 [post_date_gmt] => 2022-05-30 15:11:41 [post_content] =>

On the day Dave Plummer graduated from the University of Regina he packed his fiancé Nicole's belongings into a moving van, and then married her the following day. Two days later they flew from Regina to Seattle, where he would begin working full-time at his dream job at Microsoft.

The story of those eventful few days - one of many Plummer relates in his book Secrets of the Autistic Millionaire - takes on greater significance because at that time he had no inkling that he was a person with autism. People on the autism spectrum are uncomfortable with change, he explains, and those action-packed few days had "big change" written all over them.

The Autism diagnosis

When he was first diagnosed with Autism three years ago, he didn't want to be labeled or constrained, so in the past few years he has undertaken a number of things that were outside his comfort zone. Those included writing his book, hosting a catered party for 50 friends and launching a YouTube channel, Dave's Garage, where he talks about software coding and programming, and projects that he worked on at Microsoft.

Dave's garage where Dave hosts Dave's Garage, a YouTube channel about software coding, programming and the Microsoft projects he has worked on over the years. Dave's garage where Dave hosts Dave's Garage, a YouTube channel about software coding, programming and the Microsoft projects he has worked on over the years.

While he had dropped hints on the channel, in November 2021 Plummer revealed that he was a person with autism, describing his reaction and explaining that, for him, pushing into uncharted territory would lead to personal growth. He published the book with similar goals in mind, offering a more upbeat, optimistic approach than what he found online. Plummer says the subtitle - Everything I know about Autism, ASD and Asperger's that I wish I'd known back then - more accurately describes his purpose in writing it.

Dave and his wife Nicole at a Seattle Seahawks game. Dave and his wife Nicole at a Seattle Seahawks game.

"I find the online support groups to be full of angst and negativity and bitterness," Plummer observes. "So, if nothing else I'm trying to bring a message of, 'Life with some autism can be spectacular, and the more you know about it the better you'll manage with it.'" Plummer has received "a lot of great feedback", especially from parents with kids on the autism spectrum, encouraging him to set up a separate YouTube channel, The Autistic Millionaire, to explore topics related to it. One of his messages is that an early diagnosis is helpful, and that each child's situation is different.

Regina beginnings

Reflecting back on his early life in Regina, Plummer notes that he liked talking to adults more than kids. After school he would walk over to his father's hardware store on College Avenue East and hang out in the back of the store, which he describes as a combination workshop and informal coffee club. Within walking distance were the laundromat that his grandfather managed, the local confectionery, drug store or barber shop. "I think being around adults was highly useful in developing my 'masking' ability," Plummer explains. "In other words, I was socializing and observing how to 'fit in', which for people with significant ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) requires effort and work."

Some adults noticed that Plummer was different from other kids, and made accommodations for that. He still keeps in touch with his beloved fourth grade teacher at Arcola School, Mrs. Donna Harvey, who gave him special projects to work on - for example, a report on all Soviet and American space launches at that time - to help maintain his interest in school.

Computer Science

Plummer's engagement with computer science began when he was about 12 and his mother enrolled him in a computer class at the University of Regina that enabled him to explore his interest in programming.

"I soon realized that I could come back pretty much any time the lab was open and work on whatever I wanted, so I came in on weekends," Plummer says. "If there was no formal class going on, as long as you acted like you were supposed to be there, few took any notice of me."

A young Dave Plummer at the University of Regina circa 1992. A young Dave Plummer at the University of Regina circa 1992.

Plummer enrolled in the gifted student program at Miller High School, but after that folded he lost interest in school, skipping classes, creating video games for the Commodore 64, cruising in his car. After dropping out he worked different jobs until a friend hauled him down to the U of R campus and urged him to look into the Adult Entry program. When he saw the prerequisites he was missing it seemed logical to him to complete them at Miller, persuading the principal that he had reformed enough to graduate, which he did. "I then entered the U of R in 1989 and never looked back."

Plummer describes the Computer Science program as close to ideal for someone on the spectrum, and "fairly elementary" for him until fourth year, where he experienced his favourite classes - advanced operating systems, graphics, languages and algorithms - and his favourite professors, Dr. Howard Hamilton and Dr. Xue Dong Yang (both of whom are still members of the Faculty). Both were very influential for him, he notes.

Dr. Howard Hamilton, U of R computer science professor and director of the Laboratory for Computational Discovery. Dr. Howard Hamilton, U of R computer science professor and director of the Laboratory for Computational Discovery.

Dr. Hamilton recalls that Plummer was one of 21 students in the first class on introductory operating systems that he taught in 1991, and among the 12 in the first offering of a course about advanced operating systems. "It felt like 12 of the cleverest and keenest students from my four introductory classes were collected together, and Dave was one of them," says Dr. Hamilton. "I could tell he would do well because of his hard work, meticulously done assignments and determination to master programming skills."

Prior to his fourth year, Plummer acknowledges, he had no clear idea of what a job or career in computers might look like, but while working at SaskTel over a summer he read Hard Drive, a book about Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and the rapid growth of the company. With what he describes as hyper focus, Plummer decided he wanted to work for Microsoft. "I had no second choices or fallback plans."

Microsoft comes calling

He was successful in landing an internship after his third year - as far as he knows the lone Canadian among thirty interns - before returning to the U of R, where he graduated in January 1993 with a BSc degree in Computer Science, with High Honours. By that time Plummer had received a full-time job offer from Microsoft, which he eagerly accepted. He recalls comparing notes with two other fellows who started the same week - one from MIT and the other from Harvard - who discovered they had received the same starting salary, to the penny. "As a result of that I've always worn my U of R alumni status as a badge of honour. I received a great education and entered a very competitive industry without the virtue of a name brand that allowed me to start the race on third base, so to speak."

Plummer set sail for a career at Microsoft in the mid-1990s. Plummer set sail for a career at Microsoft in the mid-1990s.

While working on Microsoft Windows-related projects, Plummer continued programming at home, creating a Task Manager application that he had planned to distribute as (try before you buy) shareware. However, a supervisor that he showed it to liked it, and it became part of the Windows operating system. Over the past 25 years 2.2 billion people have used TaskManager, a fact that Plummer finds rewarding. "I made it for myself because I wanted it, and that is often a great way to start," he says.

Plummer left Microsoft in 2003, founding SoftwareOnline, which distributed software titles on disk and by download. The company at its peak employing 35 people as it evolved to provide more technical and security support to users. It was purchased by another support and security company in 2009.

The Plummer clan in front of the Parisienne 2+2 that Dave's father bought new in 1969. Dave acquired it in 1984 and used it as a daily driver. Note the Saskatchewan front plate. From left to right: Dave, Brooklyn, Eric, Steven, and Andrew.
The Plummer clan in front of the Parisienne 2+2 that Dave's father bought new in 1969. Dave acquired it in 1984 and used it as a daily driver. Note the Saskatchewan front plate. From left to right: Dave, Brooklyn, Eric, Steven, and Andrew.

Looking back on his experiences Plummer refers to the Japanese concept of Ikigai -- something that gives a person a sense of purpose, or that brings pleasure or fulfilment. He is fortunate, he says, to have that feeling in his life. "Working on my own gives me flexibility to chase things that interest me, and so I start and finish a lot of projects, which is always educational and keeps things fresh."

The U of R hosted an online talk and Q&A session with Dave Plummer in January 2022. Watch it here.

 For more information on the U of R's Computer Science program, click here.

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A team of University of Regina engineering graduates has combined high tech-artificial intelligence, GPS, and big data-with social marketing to solve a "wicked" waste problem: recycled materials that end up in landfill.

"Reduce, Reuse, Recycle." It was an early mantra of the environmental movement, coined after the first Earth Day in 1970. While consumer society was reluctant to "reduce" and too busy to "reuse," distaste for conspicuous waste fuelled an appetite to "recycle".

Segregating plastics and glass from paper and metal was complex enough, but too often the recycling stream was also contaminated during collection.

Recycling emerged as one concrete way people could to do something about the environment. Public pressure to set up recycling systems became intense. That, and the monumental cost of building new landfill sites, led to the adoption of curbside recycling as a favoured waste management solution across Canada and around the world.

Participation was robust, yet concerns about the inadequacies of recycling programs undermined public confidence. It was rumoured that a lot of material dutifully put in the blue bin is not actually recycled. There was some truth to these rumours: A limited and fickle market for recycled products was part of the problem; contamination was another.

Segregating plastics and glass from paper and metal was complex enough, but too often the recycling stream was also contaminated during collection. Contaminants included both items that simply aren't recyclable and, more problematic, things like motor oil, wet kitchen waste, even diapers, which leak onto other materials in the collection truck, making them impossible to recycle. Recycling workers who sorted material were at risk due to unsanitary and dangerous items, including used needles. Consequently, up to a third of recycled material could end up in landfill.

Prairie Robotics co-founder Sam Dietrich. Prairie Robotics co-founder Sam Dietrich.

Enter Prairie Robotics and the company's co-founder and CEO, Sam Dietrich BASc'17 . The University of Regina engineering grad envisioned a high tech solution to contaminated recyclables: use smart technologies to solve the problem.

Along with cofounder and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Stevan Mikha BASc'16, another U of R engineering grad, Deitrich formed Prairie Robotics.

"Our first product," says Dietrich, "was an artificial intelligence (AI) application to support self-driving tractors. It was sold to DOT Technology Corp and ultimately landed with farm equipment manufacturer Case-New Holland, which has commercialized the technology."

Looking for new opportunities, Dietrich and Mikha responded to Innovation Saskatchewan's "Innovation Challenge." Launched in 2017, Innovation Challenge was designed to generate novel solutions to public sector challenges by harnessing ideas from made-in-Saskatchewan start-up technology. The program aimed to benefit innovators by co-developing solutions that result in commercial opportunities, applying innovations to real-life settings, and enabling companies to receive feedback from large customers.

Stevan Mikha, one of Prairie Robotics co-founders. Stevan Mikha, one of Prairie Robotics co-founders.

One solution Saskatchewan's Ministry of Environment was asking for was a way to measure the content of the waste stream at landfill sites. Prairie Robotics submitted the successful proposal, called SightScale, which opened a door to Saskatchewan's "innovation ecosystem."

Dealing with waste is a "wicked" environmental problem, i.e. it's highly complex and extremely difficult to solve. Recycling seems like an obvious solution, but technical, economic, and social factors limit its efficacy. Contamination is one of those factors.

How big a problem is it? Consider the experience of one of Saskatchewan's largest waste management companies, Saskatoon-based, Loraas Recycle.

Loraas Recycle collects an average of 25,000 tons of recycling annually. The contamination rate is 20 percent on average, but Loraas has seen loads with contamination as high as 55 percent. In this case, "contaminant" means things that are simply not accepted in the recycling stream, things like wood or bricks.

Loraas Recycle also estimates that 15 percent of acceptable recyclables have been ruined by coming into contact with things like organic waste or diapers. In fact, if all the diapers that go through the Loraas system in one year were laid out in a line it would be 140 km long!

In all, some 35 percent of the material Loraas Recycle collects has to be redirected to the landfill. In addition to the environmental impact, it is a costly problem for waste management companies and municipalities alike.

Separating and redirecting contaminants to the Loraas landfill costs $500,000 to $875,000 annually, just for landfill tipping fees. Trucking the material-six 30-yard bins a day-also results in increased costs and adds to the company's carbon footprint.

Contaminants also impact the machines used to sort materials and can even shut down the system. A fire caused by a lithium battery closed the Loraas facility for eight weeks in 2018.

Contaminants can also endanger employees. The presence of sharp objects, for instance, has led to workplace injuries. Loraas Recycle reports that it removes eight 5-gallon pails of needles from the recycling stream in a typical year.

Working directly with the people in the recycling business at the Regina landfill was an eye opener for Prairie Robotics. Listening carefully to their observations, Dietrich and Mihka came to understand that, rather than measuring the problem at the landfill, what was really needed was a way to identify and prevent contamination at source-the recycling bin behind every household.

Andrew Wahba, a director at Innovation Saskatchewan, recognized Deitrich and Mikha's potential from the start.
 Andrew Wahba, a director at Innovation Saskatchewan, recognized Deitrich and Mikha's potential from the start.

"Sam and Stevan were adept at listening to stakeholders," says Andrew Wahba, Director at Innovation Saskatchewan. "They did a great job of going after the opportunity that actually existed as opposed to what they were initially aiming for. Pivoting like that is an critical skill for a start-up business."

They also learned that a key factor underlying the problem was public education. Most people want to recycle, but many are confused by what can and cannot be tossed into the blue bin. In general, people won't research this themselves, but they do respond to direct feedback.

For the City of Regina and an a number of other locales, what had proven effective in reducing contamination at source was sending staff out to check recycling bins and then making direct contact with homeowners who put undesirables in their bin.

Regina provides bi-weekly recycling collection to over 65,000 households, collecting over 7,000 tonnes of recyclables annually. Contamination impacts the income from and the costs of recycling programs. Being able to increase revenue and decrease costs was a motivating factor in 2019 when City staff undertook 6,000 recycling audits at 2,000 Regina households. This made it possible to provide people with direct feedback about common sorting mistakes. Of the carts audited, 73% were contaminated on the first visit. After receiving initial feedback, over 70% of households had improved their recycling habits by the second visit.

Dietrich pitches his business model to a group of members of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities in Regina for the organization's annual conference. Dietrich pitches his business model to a group of members of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities in Regina for the organization's annual conference.

This approach was effective, but checking 65,000 bins was formidable. Having seen the success of targeted education, the City was looking to expand the program. Working with Prairie Robotics to leverage the power of automated audits looked promising.

The Prairie Robotics team succeeded in assembling a suite of technologies to automate the job. In a nutshell, here's how it works. A camera mounted on a recycling truck records images of the contents of blue bins as they are dumped into the truck's hopper. The location of each bin is tracked using the Global Positioning System (GPS). AI is then used to examine images of the contents to check against an inventory of various known contaminants. The data can then be used to identify which contaminants have been deposited at a specific household. When a problem is identified, the system automatically generates a postcard or email, which includes an image of the contaminant. It is sent to the household as a friendly reminder that the item can't be recycled and should be put in the trash bin.

"You begin by collecting hundreds of thousands of images, using different lighting and poses," says Dietrich, "and labelling the contaminants you are interested in. Essentially, you are training artificial intelligence to sort through thousands of new images to identify contaminants.

"Initially, we identified thirteen important contaminants but we continue to add more. Some that are more difficult to catch are hazardous items that quite rare, such as needles, batteries, or even propane tanks."

Speaking of the role of his training at University of Regina, Dietrich says, "I have a degree in applied science in industrial systems engineering, with a double minor in electronics and software systems engineering. Obviously that's the right background for what I'm doing. But the part of my education that I actually use the most today is not so much related to specific software, it's more how to identify the problem. 'A problem well defined is half solved,' as they say.

"Actually, eight of ten staff at Prairie Robotics are University of Regina students," says Dietrich. "Our CTO, Stevan Mikha, did his degree in electronic systems engineering. He is currently completing a Masters program focused on machine learning for network penetration. He has become adept at explaining our technology to clients."

Dietrich and software developer Reid Patterson at the Northwest Regional Symposium in April 2022. The theme of the symposium was Winds of Change - Achieving Sustainability in Solid Waste.  Dietrich and software developer Reid Patterson at the Northwest Regional Symposium in April 2022. The theme of the symposium was Winds of Change - Achieving Sustainability in Solid Waste.

For a tech start-up, a bright idea is only half the battle. A next step is proof of concept. Prairie Robotics was able to set up a pilot project in collaboration with the City of Regina to test the approach in a neighbourhood. An initial four-month trial period was used to benchmark the technology.

"Our technology was installed on one collection truck," reports Dietrich. "The first month was used to establish a baseline for performance: what was the current level of contaminants in the bins. Over the next three months, bin contents were analyzed using AI and educational postcards were sent to households when contaminants were detected. The postcard described the importance of proper recycling and included a picture of the specific household's previous collection with contaminants highlighted and other items blurred from view."

The automated system performed over 40,000 audits (an 8-fold increase over the manual program) and generated over 10,000 postcards. The pilot was a success, with over 70 percent of 11,875 households improving their recycling practices after their first audit, with continued improvement over subsequent weeks. Total contamination decreased by 41.5 percent. The cost of the pilot was $21,900, including public education.

The Prairie Robotics platform is capable of outperforming manual audits in both volume and consistency, resulting in greater impact for municipalities. And more that 99 percent of all postcards were received without compliant.

With a successful pilot under its belt, Prairie Robotics was ready to engage with a number of government and industry support programs and ultimately to attract investors. One important step was working with a program called Cultivator, Regina's first start-up incubator and Canada's first credit union-led incubator. Sponsored by Conexus Credit Union, its objective is to launch, grow, and scale innovative Saskatchewan tech companies.

"Cultivator included training on business, marketing, product feedback, growing a team-it was a boot camp for starting and running a business," says Dietrich. "It also included a pitch competition, which we were fortunate to win, adding another $10k to our capital.

"Each step of the way we have had a lot of support from the Regina and Saskatchewan business communities. The City of Regina was our first commercial client and we also had an opportunity to work with Loraas Disposal, Saskatchewan's largest waste and recycling service provider."

U of R alumnus Max Schmeiser, head of Data Science at Twitter in Seattle, is one of the investors in Prairie Robotics. U of R alumnus Max Schmeiser, head of Data Science at Twitter in Seattle, is one of the investors in Prairie Robotics.

Support also came from Co.Labs, an independent not-for-profit resource for tech start-ups. The Saskatchewan Advantage Innovation Fund (SAIF) helped with commercialization, and the Saskatchewan Technology Startup Incentive (STSI) acted as major motivation for investors. In addition, Prairie Robotics was one of 30 companies (and the only Saskatchewan company) admitted to Canada's top AI accelerator, Next AI, a program to boost artificial intelligence-based ventures and commercialization.

"We were also provided introductions to several investors, including entrepreneur Kerry Lumbard; Dan Cugnet, former owner-operator of Goliath Disposal; and Max Schmeiser BA'03, the head of data science at Twitter, who is from Regina. They are all committed to giving back to Saskatchewan. Their support was instrumental in raising $690k in seed funding to build our business."

Andrew Wahba notes that,  "Sam is very effective at 'creating his own luck'. He seeks out the innovation ecosystem, looking at all the programs and supports out there, across the province and country. He's really strong at using that programing to take his company to the next level. I am excited to see where they are at and where they are going."

While an undergraduate student, Dietrich was part of an engineering team that twice won a precision agriculture robotics competition and $75,000. While an undergraduate student, Dietrich was part of an engineering team that twice won a precision agriculture robotics competition and $75,000.

The potential market for technology that can improve the success of recycling systems is huge: essentially, every municipality and waste management company could benefit. Currently, Prairie Robotics is collaborating on projects with a number of western Canadian municipalities, with expansion to the United States in sight.

To track the progress of Prairie Robotics, visit their website at www.prairierobotics.com.

 

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