BCIC Ignite Awards help bring innovative technology to market by funding industry-academic partnerships

The four winners of the latest BCIC Ignite Awards must commercialize their research within three years

Credit: Jarusha Brown Photography

The BCIC Ignite Awards winners

The four winners must commercialize their research within three years

The BC Innovation Council (BCIC) keeps doing its part to power the provincial economy. Last night (October 10) at the Vancouver Club, the third BCIC Ignite Awards gave a collective $735,000 to four B.C. technology research projects. BCBusiness was a media sponsor of the awards, which recognize industry and academic partnerships to commercialize groundbreaking research in natural resources and life sciences.

“BC Ignite provides funding for collaborative, industry-driven academic research leading to commercialized products,” said Carl Anderson, president and CEO of Crown agency BCIC. The winning projects must have a clearly articulated solution to an existing industry problem, be beyond proof of concept, have potential for broad adoption and demonstrate the capacity to move the proposed innovation to market within three years, Anderson added. “These awards are special because they enable researchers in natural resources and applied sciences to solve real-world problems, not just for B.C. but for the world.”

Bruce Ralston, provincial minister of jobs, trade and technology, was a guest speaker at the event. “Our government has ambitious plans to drive B.C.’s innovative economy forward,” said Ralston, who told the crowd that he was excited to work with BCIC to host the 2018 BC Tech Summit next May. “We are working on establishing B.C. as a preferred location for new and emerging technologies, enhancing the growth of local tech companies, removing barriers to attracting skilled workers provincewide and establishing an Innovation Commission to advocate for the sector.”

BCIC launched the biannual Ignite Awards in September 2016. Applicants, who can receive as much as $300,000, must be a B.C.-based consortium of two or more companies, organizations and academic researchers. They must also commercialize their work within three years—and raise $2 for every $1 they receive from BCIC. As a result, last night’s winners will be able to put a combined total of more than $2 million toward commercializing their research. Including leveraged funds, the 11 Ignite Awards honorees to date have received some $7.5 million.

The deadline for the next BCIC Ignite Awards is January 2018. For details, click here

Samantha Legge, president of BCBusiness publisher Canada Wide Media Ltd., emceed the October 10 awards. Representatives from the four winning projects participated in a panel discussion moderated by BCBusiness editor-in-chief Nick Rockel. Here’s a look at their work.

Structural engineering
Consortium partners: Matheo Dürfeld, CEO, BC Passive House; Robert Malczyk, principal, Equilibrium Consulting Inc.; and Thomas Tannert, associate professor of integrated wood engineering and B.C. Leadership Chair in tall wood and hybrid structures engineering, UNBC

BC Passive House is on a mission to change the way homes get built in North America. Now the Pemberton-based company aims to bring “passive house,” a building standard that results in dwellings using up to 90 per cent less energy than their traditional counterparts, to the commercial and industrial arena.

For several years, BC Passive House—CEO Dürfeld is a co-owner with Equilibrium Consulting principal Malczyk—has been making super-insulated wall panels for single-family homes, UNBC’s Tannert says. Vancouver-based Equilibrium Consulting does structural design for large commercial buildings, most of which are built using steel or concrete. “If they were done in wood, it would allow these structures to be much better insulated, to have a much, much better environmental performance,” Tannert explains. When Tannert took his current post at UNBC last year, Dürfeld and Malczyk saw potential to advance development of such a product faster than without a university partner, he says. The plan: “to develop and then bring to market these prefabricated mass timber panels that are insulated and would allow to reach passive house standard or even passive house certification, but with the potential market for commercial and industrial buildings.”

By commercializing the panels, BC Passive House would become the first maker of a “wood-first” solution that ticks all the boxes for multi-storey and large-scale construction. The goal is to get them on the market in two years, but Tannert believes it might happen sooner. “If a big enough project comes along that justifies an investment in…manufacturing technology, I think the whole process could be even faster than we anticipated,” he says.

For a video about the project, click here

Life sciences
Consortium partners: Tamer Mohamed, president and CEO, Aspect Biosystems; and Stephanie Willerth, associate professor of mechanical engineering, UVic

A tissue engineer, UVic’s Willerth works in the area of biomaterials and engineering neural tissue from stem cells. Bone and other structural tissue is easy to replace, she says, giving the example of a hip implant. But right now there’s no way to cure neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, or even spinal cord injuries, so researchers have looked to stem cells as a potential solution.

For a long time, Willerth and her colleagues grew stem cells in 3-D gels to look at the neural tissue they make. But because the tissue takes a long time to mature, it’s hard to make large quantities. Aspect Biosystems, a Vancouver-based specialist in 3-D bio-printing and tissue engineering, has created a novel Lab-on-a-Printer system that enables the automation of such processes, Willerth says. “What’s really unique about theirs is you can combine a bunch of different biological components in different orders to make these really complex tissues.”

Willerth’s lab worked with the company to develop bio-inks—made from bio-compatible materials similar to those found in the human body—for 3-D printing. “This whole thing is to essentially use Aspect’s printer with our stem cells and our bio-ink technology to make these neural tissues in a high-throughput fashion,” Willerth says. “And then once we have them, first we’re going to validate them against compounds that are known to cause neurotoxicity in human tissues, and then we can test potential drugs.”

Aspect has licensed tissue to Johnson & Johnson and other pharmaceuticals companies, Willerth says. About 90 per cent of drugs for neurological disorders that make it to clinical trials fail, she notes. That’s because current tools—feeding compounds to rats and mice to determine toxicity, and culturing human nerve cells in 2-D—are so poor. “The goal is to make these human tissues in a dish that a company like Johnson & Johnson would license and they screen their drugs against and see if they were toxic,” Willerth says. “And then that would at least make them better informed before moving these drugs into people.”

For a video about the project, click here.

Wastewater treatment
Consortium partners: Victor Lo, professor emeritus of civil engineering, UBC; Opus International Consultants (Canada) Ltd. – Al Gibb, vice-president, wastewater treatment; JAMES Wastewater Treatment Plant, Abbotsford – Stella Chiu, engineer; and Boost Environmental Systems Inc. – Sergey Lobanov, president

UBC’s Lo and his research team have developed an innovative microwave heating and oxidation pre-treatment process for breaking down solid sewage at wastewater treatment plants. To help test the new technology, a demonstration pilot is taking place in Abbotsford. “This pre-treatment process pre-conditions the waste solids at the plant so that the next treatment step works faster and produces more biogas, which can be used to generate heat and power for use at the plant,” says Opus International’s Gibb. It also significantly reduces the solids a plant produces and delays the need to expand solids treatment facilities, Gibb adds.

Treatment of waste solids yields a stabilized organic material, typically called biosolids, that can be used as a slow-release organic fertilizer and soil conditioner. In the Lower Mainland, wastewater treatment plants often truck treated biosolids to the Interior, for uses like application to rangeland and reclamation of disturbed sites such as strip mines. “Reducing the amount of biosolids that needs to be trucked offsite and applied to land has the potential to reduce the operating costs at the treatment plant by quite a bit,” Gibb says. “And the fact that you’re producing more biogas for generating heat and power at the plant also can reduce the plant operating costs.”

There’s another benefit: better recovery of nutrients, mostly phosphorus and nitrogen, from the solid waste. “Because of the enhanced release of nutrients, you can make fertilizer pellets, which also can be sold to help to reduce the plant operating costs,” Gibb says, noting that another UBC process integrated into the system produces such pellets.

The main target for commercialization is wastewater treatment plants, which the research partners expect to offer a $1-billion market by 2018. But they also see an opportunity to help the dairy-farming and other industries deal with waste treatment and management.

For a video about the project, click here.

Environmental monitoring
Consortium partners: Caren Helbing, professor of biochemistry and microbiology, UVic; Hemmera Envirochem Inc. – Greg Quandt, vice-president, B.C. and Yukon region; and Maxxam Analytics

The goal of this project is to redefine traditional environmental monitoring by developing a simple, affordable, lab-based environmental DNA (eDNA) test. “You collect a water sample and you run that water sample through and look for DNA, and in doing so you can check for the presence or non-presence of species of management interest,” says Doug Bright, practice leader, environmental risk assessment, with Burnaby-based Hemmera.

Some examples: at-risk fish and amphibians, and invasive species. By identifying genetic material shed from animals and plants, the technology can also detect wildlife, livestock and crop pathogens as they’re starting to invade or spread.

As an alternative to traditional monitoring, the consortium’s eDNA test will allow regulators, resource developers, First Nations and others to make better decisions about ecological health and biodiversity. Bright, who has worked with UVic’s Helbing and Hemmera senior biologist Jared Hobbs on the project, notes that the consortium wants to create greater regulatory and public acceptance of eDNA methods.

“If we can use these kinds of techniques and commercialize them so they’re broadly available for everybody, what we end up doing is having the ability to gather so much more data over space and time relative to what we did in the past, which means that we’re making fewer decisions when we’re thinking about environmental protection that are wrought with uncertainty,” Bright says. “So by virtue of reducing that uncertainty, the hope is that you reduce conflict and environmental degradation.”

For a video about the project, click here.