Rise of the Cyclotron

A nondescript ?factory in Richmond ?founded by Old World craftsmen has become the global go-to place for isotope-producing cyclotrons.

Richard Eppich, Ebco Industries Ltd, Cyclotron | BCBusiness
Standing behind Ebco Industries’ crowning achievement, the cyclotron, is second-generation CEO, Richard Eppich.

A nondescript 
factory in Richmond 
founded by Old World craftsmen has become the global go-to place for isotope-producing cyclotrons.

Abutting the Fraser River in Richmond, on a five-hectare site that is home to Ebco Industries Ltd., stands an unadorned, prefabricated building. Inside the immaculate space is a collection of what appear to be giant Lego blocks painted a deep topaz blue, with gleaming copper interiors and tails of snaking cables. A milling crowd, munching catered canapés and sipping coffee, contemplates these metal cubes like aesthetes at an art exhibit. The cerebral gathering includes physicists, nuclear-medicine physicians and researchers and elegantly dressed Asian businessmen here to write a multi-million dollar cheque for one of these blue boxes.

The metal boxes are cyclotrons, and their prosaic structure, about the size of an SUV sans wheels, belies the key role they play in the rapidly advancing field of nuclear medicine. Equally incongruous are the two men behind their construction: family patriarch Helmut Eppich and son Richard Eppich are very approachable and perfectly ordinary in appearance. Richard is CEO of Ebco and its sister company, Advanced Cyclotron Systems Inc. (ACSI), which manufactures the cyclotrons. Helmut, who bequeathed leadership of both companies to his son in 2009, chairs both entities. Helmut and Richard are highly regarded by visitors at this open house, many of whom consider ACSI to be the world’s top manufacturer of cyclotrons, surpassing its three global competitors: health-care titans and cyclotron manufacturers General Electric Co., Siemens Global of Germany and IBA Group of Belgium.

The science of a cyclotron

Founding Fathers: Helmut Eppich (left), Stefan
Burger (centre) and Hugo Eppich.

If the word “cyclotron” sounds like it was appropriated from a science fiction novel, that might be justified by the fact that these devices accelerate subatomic particles to velocities approaching the speed of light. Invented in the 1930s, cyclotrons have undergone a renaissance within medicine for two key reasons. First, cyclotrons like the ones ACSI makes are capable of producing technetium-99m, a radioactive, silvery metal. Falling under the category of elements known as isotopes, the metal remains significantly radioactive for just a few hours. During that time, small amounts can be safely injected into the human body, where it gives off radiation that provides an unparalleled look at the body’s innermost workings. Doctors use handy acronyms to describe the sophisticated detectors that generate these images, which include PET (positron emission tomography) and SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography). The dynamics are complex, but the bottom line is that nothing gives a clearer, more detailed picture for diagnosing challenging medical conditions such as cancer or heart disease than technetium-99m.

Secondly, as ungainly as a cyclotron might appear, it is much more compact – not to mention cheaper and safer – than a nuclear reactor. Yet reactors are a source of most of the technetium-99m used in an estimated 20 million scans performed around the world annually, according to global health science company Nordion Inc.

In recent years the world has been relying on one reactor for almost half of that global supply. The National Research Universal (NRU) facility is located at Chalk River, Ontario, a few hours west of Ottawa. It uses weapons-grade uranium to create another isotope, called molybdenum-99 (Mo-99), which decays into technetium-99m at laboratories and hospitals, just before it is injected into a patient. Just two years ago, NRU was producing from 80-85 per cent of Canada’s supply of Mo-99 and about 40 per cent of the world’s supply, according to Natural Resources Canada. 

An elaborate isotope manufacturing and distribution system has been in place for decades, but the Chalk River reactor, which became operational in 1945, is limping into retirement and set to be mothballed in 2016. Structural problems and leaking caused shutdowns from 2007 to 2009. In 2009, a three-month closure occurred when only one of the world’s other four reactors was producing isotopes, resulting in a worldwide technetium-99m shortage.

Ebco Industries and ACSI today.

The vulnerability of reactors was also highlighted last year when an earthquake and tsunami disabled Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant on March 11, crippling four of its six reactors and creating radiation leaks that are still not repaired. Finally, one other factor has the research and medical communities searching for an alternative to nuclear reactors. While chasing down stolen weapons-grade uranium of the kind produced by nuclear reactors is a staple of such fictional thrillers as television’s 24, the non-fictional nuclear family quietly harbours fears that such a plot is in the realm of possibility. 

For ACSI, concerns about traditional sources of isotopes have presented unprecedented opportunity. Back in 2009, Richard and Helmut contemplated technetium-99m shortages and realized there was a business opportunity just waiting to be seized. Over the next two years, ACSI shifted into high gear, ramping up production from a few cyclotrons a year to nearly a dozen. ACSI also trademarked the technetium-99m its cyclotrons produce, calling it CycloTec. In 2011, ACSI sold 11 cyclotrons at a cost of between $2 million and $10 million each, depending on their technetium-99m producing capacity. (The cyclotrons’ names: TR 13, TR 19, TR 24 and TR 30, identify their available power for accelerating particles.) ACSI has now cornered nearly half of the global cyclotron market. Currently, says Richard, ACSI is booked well into 2013, with orders from Japan, France, Germany, the U.S. and Canada. At the time of writing, just three months into the current fiscal year, 75 per cent of both ACSI’s and Ebco’s sales targets were already achieved, Richard says. (Ebco manufactures three-tonne magnets and vacuum chambers for ACSI cyclotrons.) The biggest problem now is one every business would love to have: its 27,900 square metres of manufacturing floor space is filled to capacity with workers toiling to ensure that orders are met, says Richard. Ebco is also considering starting an in-house program to train welders and fitters to the level required to build its high-tech machinery, as the trades schools in B.C. currently aren’t meeting the company’s requirements, he adds. 


Image: Ebco Industries
The tunnel-boring machine used to build the

Becoming a cyclotron manufacturer

How did a family-owned, 55-year-old company, founded in what some consider the manufacturing wasteland of Canada’s West Coast, join the rarefied group of cyclotron manufacturers that, unlike ACSI and Ebco, play with billion-dollar budgets? Father and son say it’s not complicated: a combination of ingenuity, high standards and scientific collaboration with long-time partner ­TRIUMF, Canada’s renowned national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics, based at UBC. The reality, however, isn’t simple. The story of ACSI and Ebco is a tale rooted in war-torn Europe and propelled along an odyssey of poverty, life-altering injury, unwavering determination and, it may be said, a touch of genius.

He may be 78, but Helmut sits straight and poised at a glass table in Richard’s spartan CEO office. Helmut’s one good eye glints with humour and intelligence through large, smudged, gold wire-rim glasses. He is dressed in a well-worn dark suit and blue paisley tie that have obviously done duty at many a business meeting. Order of Canada and Order of B.C. pins are displayed on the left lapel. While commercial jets, heading for nearby Vancouver International Airport, boom overhead, Helmut reaches back in time to the 1930s, when he and his three brothers, including twin Hugo, along with mother Rosa and father Eduard, were living in what is now Slovenia. Helmut barely remembers Eduard, who died in 1939, not in Second World War hostilities but by accident: he was crushed by a moving trolley at a railway station during a blackout meant to deter enemy bombers. The Eppich boys were split up and sent to Alpine villages to wait out the war in safety. Afterward, teenaged Helmut apprenticed as a tool and die maker in Germany, learning how to create complex machining and stamping presses. Like many of his fellow countrymen, Helmut fled the privations of post-war Germany and sought adventure by immigrating to Canada in 1954. “I was very poor,” he recalls. “I borrowed $600 to pay for the flight from Germany, a suit and a briefcase.” Helmut contemplated starting a tool and die shop to service Ontario’s growing automobile industry, but was convinced by Hugo and a friend to explore Canada, and wound up on the West Coast. 

When Helmut arrived in Vancouver, the city’s industrial sector was receding like the tide, with big companies like Dominion Bridge pulling up stakes. Helmut found a job at Advanced Industries as a tool and die maker, but three weeks before he planned to return to Ontario he was injured at work when a hot metal splinter flew into his right eye. “They said I was blind,” says Helmut, who underwent various surgeries aimed at restoring his sight over the following 25 years. If Helmut returned to Ontario, he wouldn’t get workers’ compensation payments, so he opted to stay in Vancouver with Hugo and, together with Stefan Burger, a founding partner who would leave the company within a few years, the brothers launched Ebco Industries Ltd. Between Helmut and Hugo, the pair could do almost anything: welding, tool and die making, metal stamping and electronics. But even though Helmut knocked on doors and sent out letters advertising his services, no one bit, until one job finally came in: manufacturing a brass component for an electrical transformer. Helmut quoted the client $4.30 in materials and labour, then found out the cheapest piece of brass he could find at a junk dealer was $7.50.

Image: Paul Joseph
One of four 40-tonne radial gates in development for BC Hydro’s Stave Falls Lake dam

The first few months of work brought in $31. Still, “I didn’t give up,” Helmut says. After three months, the company where he had lost his eyesight gave him work. Then Ebco got a small contract with BC Hydro to create a special cover for a small light; the work was simple, but inventive. That month brought in a windfall of $950. (Hugo eventually split with Helmut and set up his own Richmond-based business.)

The experience of setting up shop in a depressed economy quickly taught Helmut that industries can disappear overnight and it is vital to stay abreast of the latest technology; adaptation and ingenuity were paramount if Ebco was to stay afloat. Helmut realized another key lesson: Ebco would be reliant upon word-of-mouth referrals from happy clients, and the best way to make a client happy was to ensure their blueprints were perfectly executed, with trouble-free prototypes arising from sometimes-vague renderings. “Virtually every major order that comes in, we’re scratching our chin and going, ‘How do we do this?’” Richard says.

Ebco’s name came to be bandied about the aerospace, defence, pulp and paper, mining and nuclear energy sectors as the go-to guys for manufacturing challenges no one else would – or could – touch. Ebco soon moved from Vancouver to its current site in Richmond to be near the railway and Fraser River for loading and unloading huge orders of metals and massive pieces of machinery. The company’s client list would eventually include some of the world’s top corporations, and contracts included projects of international notoriety. Ebco built hydraulic lifts for Boeing Co. to hoist aircraft wings up to the fuselage where they were bolted on. It built a launch platform for the U.S. Air Force’s intercontinental ballistic MX Missile. It built equine hyperbaric chambers: steel cylinders pumped full of oxygen to speed healing, similar to those used by two-legged athletes. The tunnel-borers – giant drills that gnaw through underwater rock – that created the Chunnel between England and France were made by Ebco. It also made the platform on the space satellite station that the Canadarm moves back and forth on. “We make everything,” says Helmut. “That’s how we survive in B.C.”

Helmut pauses, then turns to Richard, who has joined his father at the glass table in his office. “You were five years old when we bought this property,” muses Helmut, who still comes to work nearly every day. “I remember playing here,” responds Richard, 48, smiling at his dad. “We were mucking around in our boots while workers were digging ditches.” 

Image: Ebco Industries
Mill shells used in mining.

TRIUMF needs a cyclotron

Then TRIUMF came knocking. A place where some of the globe’s most brilliant minds probe the origin of the universe and the nature of matter itself, TRIUMF is Canada’s nuclear physics laboratory, affiliated with 17 universities across the country and located on the UBC campus in a building as nondescript as ACSI’s. TRIUMF needed a cyclotron to carry out its experiments, and it had to be a particle accelerator like no other. TRIUMF searched, but no company could match ACSI’s manufacturing capabilities. In 1974 the world’s largest cyclotron, at 22-metres-wide, its major components built by Ebco, was switched on. After a few tweaks, it “worked like magic,” says Timothy Meyer, a particle physicist who heads strategic planning and communications at ­TRIUMF. “Helmut brought to the table something that had never been done before: not just intelligence but risk-taking and innovation.”

TRIUMF’s cyclotron is still the world’s largest, producing isotopes that are used not only in medicine but in particle-physics experiments and nanotechnology and battery research, says Meyer. The early collaboration of Ebco and ACSI with TRIUMF, which together have a memorandum of understanding, has resulted in “a centre of excellence on the West Coast,” Meyer adds. Between the Eppichs, TRIUMF and the B.C. Cancer Agency, which also has an ACSI cyclotron, “all these minds are starting to work together and having conversations about what they should do as a group to save the world,” Meyer says. 

Thomas Ruth, a senior scientist at the B.C. Cancer Agency, says the agency’s Vancouver-based facility installed an ACSI cyclotron two years ago that, to date, has produced isotopes for 6,000 patient scans. The cyclotron makes the isotope F18, used for PET scans, and is being altered to make technetium-99m. “It looks at the function of a tumour, not just its structure,” says Ruth, who is also a senior research scientist at TRIUMF. This allows doctors to determine what drug regimens will work best, preventing patients from being prescribed the wrong therapy, he says. Ruth believes that the potential of cyclotrons is just beginning to be explored, not only in medicine but in other areas of research, from plant ecology to the pulp and paper industry. “It opens a window into the functioning of many things in our lives,” he notes. 

Sometimes, after a good day – and most days are good, if long and gruelling – Richard and Helmut will sit down and quietly smoke cigars together, discussing the future of ACSI and Ebco. Richard is determined the companies will remain private, ensuring that the ingenuity and innovation at their cores aren’t compromised. “We will always be in manufacturing and we will always be technological leaders in the area we focus on,” Richard says. “We are the little company that can seriously change nuclear medicine around the world. Why? Because Helmut and I are used to hearing, ‘it’s impossible.’ We have survived for 50 years by out-hustling and out-thinking. We want to be around in 50 years – and we will be.”