Small-scale technology is big news these days for business in Edmonton.
Fresh off a major small-tech commercialization conference, several companies working on micro- and nano-sized products are eyeing markets valued at more than $1 trillion over the next decade.
The city did its best at the recent Commercialization of Micro and Nano Systems Conference (COMS) to show that it deserves to be among the world leaders in the fast-growing field.
Edmonton startup firm Applied Nano Tools, just under two years old, has managed to make its first sale in an industry where many products are still under development.
Another University of Alberta-led technology that boasts cancer-fighting lab-on-a-chip technology received a $2.5-million boost with an announcement from Western Economic Diversification Canada.
“The conference will help us do things a little better,” said COMS conference manager Leigh Hill.
“It showcased what we have here and helped us to better inform people about what we’re doing now and where we’re going in the future.”
A cluster initiative to foster the growth of commercial enterprises working on projects on both a micro and nano scale, NanoMEMS Edmonton hopes to help local firms capitalize on the growing global market.
The city already has a research advantage with the National Research Council’s National Institute for Nano- technology (NINT) at the University of Alberta. It is also home to more than 24 established and early-stage companies.
“Micro- and nano- technology takes on average 20 years to commercialize, and it is knowledge-intensive,” said Kees Eijkel, president of the Micro and Nanotechnology Commercialization Education Foundation (MANCEF), the organization that uses COMS as its primary educational vehicle.
For Applied Nano Tools president Mirwais Aktary, the sale – informally announced at the conference – is something that the young CEO takes in stride.
The product sold to the University of Saskatchewan, a calibration grid, is actually a less-demanding version of the synchrotron focusing lens that it wants to take to market. Its objective is to have that prototype ready by the end of the year.
A synchrotron is like a giant microscope that generates intense beams of light in order to be able to view the microstructure of a substance.
“You have to learn to walk before you can run,” Aktary said of the calibration grid. “The technology, though, is exactly the same as what we will use to make the lens.”
While not as large a market as others that some nanotechnology companies are eyeing, Aktary believes that their target niche will grow. “If you create the lenses, you create the market. It will emerge. In a sense, we’re creating our own markets.”
At the University of Alberta, the lab-on-a-chip development is still in its early stages. Ultimately, the Alberta Cancer Diagnostic Consortium cancer- detection device will provide health practitioners with faster, more accurate diagnoses and help to save lives.
The goal is to create a handheld tool that can identify four types of cancer within minutes. It will use microfluidic chips, glass or plastic chips embedded with micron-width channels, where fluids thousands of times smaller than a droplet can travel, to detect multiple myeloma, follicular lymphoma, colorectal cancer and pre-screening for susceptibility to breast cancer.
The diagnostic consortium is a collaboration between the universities of Alberta and Calgary, and the Alberta Cancer Board, all of which are providing key researchers and support.
Other recent nano-developments in Edmonton include:
* Micralyne Inc., a market-leading micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) manufacturer, reported that project scientist Dr. Siamak Akhlaghi received his second straight Abner Brenner Award from the American Electroplaters and Surface Finishers Society. His 2003 paper focused on electroplating of gold-tin eutectic solders, which are used for packaging microelectronic and optoelectronic devices.
* Federal and provincial funding totalling $6.5 million to the University of Alberta’s NanoFabrication Facility to acquire new equipment; to create the Centre of Excellence in Integrated NanoTools to accelerate research capability at the university; and for new applied research that will be undertaken to develop more cost-effective alloy materials.
These and future developments will likely raise Edmonton’s small-tech profile, though Brian Moore, chief technical officer of BigBangwidth – another Edmonton MEMS company – outlined why the city has remained low on international radar screens.
“We’re low-key in some ways,” said Moore. “We have the three pillars to success – ideas, infrastructure and people. So from those perspectives, Edmonton is hot. What we lack is the investment on the scale we are now seeing around the world.”
An example of that would be the $3.7 billion US the Americans have earmarked for nanotechnology research over four years.
But Moore added that work done a decade ago in Edmonton is now paying dividends as commercially viable products.
“Think of atomic-force microscope tips, silicon integrated microphones, phase masks or the breakthroughs in microfluidics for the human genome,” he said. “All of that happened here in Edmonton and that level of discovery still happens here every day.”
Moore added that when it is fully staffed, NINT will have 200 more researchers working on key aspects of nanoscale research and development.
(Laura Severs can be reached at email@example.com)