The power of R3: Where business and innovation combine

The power of R3: Where business and innovation combine
Recipients of R3 Innovation Awards for excellence. (Left to right) Dr. Kevin Englehart, Calvin Milbury (NBIF CEO), Dr. Rodney Ouellette, Dr. Robert Hatheway (NBIF CHAIR), Dr. Felipe Chibante

In March, the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation (NBIF) presented their R3 Innovation Awards for Excellence in Applied Research to three New Brunswick innovators at the R3 Gala in Fredericton. Attracting business people and researchers alike, the biannual event has led to business collaborations between the two oftentimes-disparate groups. A keynote address by Saul Singer, co-author of the New York Times best-selling book, Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle demonstrated how New Brunswick can use its strengths to apply Israel’s model to accelerate its expanding innovation-based economy. For more information on NBIF, its portfolio of companies and researchers, visit www.nbif.ca.

Nano-warrior

V25N3 (reduced).inddImagine waking up in the morning and realizing you forgot to charge your cell phone. But in this case, you don’t have to panic because all you have to do is plug your phone into your jacket — sound appealing? How about roof tiles that generate electricity, or auto body parts that power your car?

“What we wanted to do was actually make a complete, fully-woven material that has all the elements needed so that each individual fiber can absorb light, and down the core those fibers will be gathered to generate the current to power a device,” said Felipe Chibante, associate professor and chair in nanotechnology at the University of New Brunswick.

Ultimately, Chibante hopes to make a big impact on the cost of fullerenes and other members of the carbon fullerene family, that will eventually impact the solar energy sector, significantly lowering the cost of manufacturing solar cells. Fullerenes are man-made, pure carbon molecules that represent the most expensive ingredient in the making of organic solar cells. They cost from $10,000 to $15,000 a kilogram.

Nanotubes, also part of the fullerene family, are great conductors of electricity. While Chibante sees a way in the future to weave nanotubes into fabrics, like all other industries that work with fullerenes, price is a major obstacle … for now.

In early 2013, Dr. Chibante demonstrated a new technique for manufacturing fullerenes to the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation that will see its price per kilogram drop to below $5,000. They invested $500,000 in his research to scale his invention for industrial use, and in March 2014 awarded him the R3 Innovation Award for Excellence in Applied Research at a gala event in Fredericton.

“If New Brunswick becomes a leader in this field then it’s going to help our industrial partners,” said Chibante, “which are regional, but also create job opportunities and move us into the next generation of energy technologies and position New Brunswick as a global leader.”

While he intends to remain in the energy sector, fullerenes are used in many other industries too.

“I think it’s the old DuPont saying, ‘better life through chemistry,'” he said. “We like to say better life through carbon nanotechnology.”

By Ian LeBlanc

Cancer crusaders

V25N3 (reduced).inddAll it takes is a finger prick, saliva swab or small amount of urine and 30 minutes.

Here’s how it works. Cells put out packets of information like a biological communication network. Through all the chatter, Dr. Rodney Ouellette and his team at the Atlantic Cancer Research Institute in Moncton, New Brunswick, along with Boston-based company New England Peptide, have created a small protein called Vn96 that picks up one particular call every time — from cancer.

“It binds to cancer cells very, very effectively,” said Dr. Ouellette, president and scientific director of the institute. “So what we had was one of the first methods to be able to quickly and efficiently extract this material to study it.”

Ouellette and his team research new ways to detect and treat cancer, making the whole procedure much less invasive than traditional methods.

Active cancer cells excrete micro vesicles which can be found in saliva, blood, or urine. While they may not be able to give the exact location and type of cancer, it tells you something isn’t right. It’s far better and faster than some older methods of diagnosing cancer and is much less invasive than biopsies.

Dr. Ouellette and New England Peptide have spun out a new company called Excipio Technology Inc., to get their diagnostic test kit into the hands of doctors and researchers.

“Everything that we do in the hospital setting is a test,” he said.” Let’s say there’s no test for pancreatic cancer today, and all of a sudden this leads to effective tests. It means theoretically you would be screening everybody 50-plus every year, or every couple of years using this. Imagine tests costing anywhere from $100 to $500 and you’re selling millions, and you’re getting two per cent of that. It’s a big number.”

Thinking into the future, Ouellette said because of this technology, he sees doctors having a portable device that provides rapid test results.

Now that their general cancer detection kit is on the market, Ouellette and his team have turned their attention to a new therapeutic procedure that looks at specific anomalies that indicate the presence of lung cancer. The new procedure has two approaches for identifying and targeting cellular weaknesses: a virally-introduced inhibitor that identifies the weakness, and molecules called peptoids that target and destroy them. Using a combination of the two is “somewhat novel,” according to Ouellette.

Dr. Ouellette and his team recently received $600,000 from the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation to invest in their research, in addition to the R3 Innovation Award for Excellence in Applied Research.

By Ian LeBlanc

Bionic man

V25N3 (reduced).indd“If you asked me about cyborgs 10 years ago, I probably would have said no,” said Dr. Kevin Englehart, professor of electrical and computer engineering at University of New Brunswick and director of theInstitute of Biomedical Engineering. “I’ve seen the advances that have happened in the last 10 years, and I’m seeing forces that are driving that more and more. It’s not just for rehabilitation. It’s for all forms of human augmentation … All of a sudden you’ve opened up a whole new world of ways to interact with the body and the body to interact with the world — the idea of a cyborg, yeah, definitely.”

Englehart’s current technology is for making prosthetics (artificial limbs) that turn thought into motion.

Dr. Englehart uses an algorithm to decode patterns from complex electrical signals which the central nervous system sends to move muscles to articulate, for example, the lower arm, hand and fingers of a prosthetic device. His work earned him the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation’s R3 Innovation Award for Excellence in Applied Research this past March.

“For years, prosthetic limbs responded to muscle activity that had to be learned, so it was a somewhat contrived or unnatural type of muscle contraction one had to make in order to control the limbs,” he said. “Our system learns how to use the user rather than the user having to learn how to use the system.”

“We’ll place electrodes at strategic places … and when someone tries to move that missing hand, we can learn those patterns that person produces when they think about moving that hand that’s not there.”

But sometimes the signal gets distorted from changes to the skin’s surface, like sweat. This is why he’s looking at embedding electrodes inside the muscles themselves and developing wireless telemetry to beam signals through the skin to the control system. “That will be the next big thing, and that will allow for a much more consistent and robust way to control artificial limbs.”

Eventually, he’ll look at anchoring the prosthesis to the bone itself, which will “provide a much more stable interface to the prosthesis,” he said. “If we can make safe biomedical devices that people can wear, there are all kinds of applications out there.”

Right now technology is limited. “We don’t even have a complete knowledge of how hands do what they do”, said Englehart. But within 10 years, “we’re going to get something pretty darn good.”

By Ian LeBlanc

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