Cool Companies: Alberta's Nanotechnology & Advanced Materials 2009

Industry Analysis: Alberta on the world’s nanotechnology stage

Excerpt from Cool Companies

Read PDF version that appeared in the Cool Companies industry guide [PDF]

The birth of nanotechnology

The credit for inspiring nanotechnology belongs to Dr. Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who presented the concept in a speech in 1959. One of the critical successes that led to the launch of nanotechnology was the invention of microscopes that allowed us to see individual atoms for the first time. An example is NINT’s (p.48) one-of-a-kind transmission electron microscope (TEM) pictured on the right that can image silicon atoms that are 0.2 nm wide (pictured below).

These high powered microscopes were also used to manipulate atoms at the atomic level. In 1989 IBM was the first to do this by spelling out the letters “IBM” using 35 individual atoms. Above is a similar demonstration of “UA”, which stands for the University of Alberta. It was made by individually manipulating 17 carbon monoxide molecules on a copper surface. The “UA” is about 15 nanometres across and the image was taken with a Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM) at NINT.


The creation of Alberta’s nanotechology cluster

In the second half of the 1990s, the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation (EEDC), local business leaders, academics and the Alberta government converged on a strategy to create a nanotechnology cluster in Alberta. They had all been developing independently within their specializations in the broad field of nanotechnology, but it was clear that going it alone was a difficult if not impossible proposition.

The University of Alberta (p.43) led the charge when the federal government loosened its restrictions on educational funding in 1996, coinciding with the dawning of the realization by governments that there is a direct link between innovation and economic prosperity. Funds began to flow into university-based research and each university set its priorities on how best to use the new money. The University of Alberta, based in Edmonton, chose MNT (micro and nanotechnology) as one of the most promising paths to diversification of the provincial economy that was and remains so dominated by energy, forestry and agriculture. The University of Calgary (p.45) chose information and computer technology—an equally promising field.

The next critical step in Alberta’s nanotechnology history that the group undertook was to persuade the National Research Council to locate its proposed National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT) (p.48) at the University of Alberta (p.43) located in Edmonton.

When they succeeded in that vital objective, the local group went on to form NanoMEMS (p.9), the brand name they gave to the committee that put Edmonton on the nanotechnology map when it persuaded COMS (International Conference on the Commercialization of Micro and Nano Systems) to hold its 2004 conference in Edmonton.

Nanotechnology in Canada

Nanotechnology is considered by many to be the catalyst for social and economic impacts larger than those of the computer revolution. Exponential growth is on the horizon.

A conservative forecast is that the global nano-enabled product market will be $1 trillion a year by 2020. It is currently estimated at $8 billion.

The race to capture a share of this $1 trillion market by 2020 is on. Canada aims to achieve 10% of the total global market and the United States is expected to secure the largest share at 33%, as pictured in the pie graph provided by Alberta Advanced Education and Technology which appeared in the Government of Alberta’s Alberta Nanotechnology Strategy of April 2007.

Four Canadian provinces are investing significantly in nanotechnology: Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec. Alberta’s goal is to achieve a 2% share of the global nanotechnology market by 2020—generating an estimated $20 billion of new economic activity in the province by developing nano-enabled products and applications specific to industries in the energy and environment, health and medical technologies, and agriculture and forestry sectors.

Analysis of Alberta’s nanotechnology cluster

A strong technology cluster requires the following seven criteria for success:

1. A powerful university-based research capability

The research engine for the nanotechnology cluster in Alberta can be found in the extensive infrastructure for nanotechnology and advanced materials within the University of Alberta (p.43), and, to a lesser extent, in the University of Calgary (p.45). A highlight of some of the world-leading researchers in the region can be found in the article on p.40. Alberta has over 130 nanotechnology-focused academic scientists not including at least another 500 graduate students and post-docs. Alberta is also home to Canada’s nanotechnology research flagship—the world-class $150 million NRC National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT), profiled on page 48.

2. A strong community of industrial adopters in the region, who have turned research into commercial products

Alberta is home to 42 dedicated nanotechnology and advanced materials companies. In this special issue we profile 31 active companies (starting p.10) plus 6 companies with corporate R&D programs (p.34). While there are another 5 companies, these were too nascent to yet want media attention.

3. Interactive R&D in industry and the university

Most researchers, by their nature, are not constantly on the lookout for commercial opportunities and applications of their research. So, to optimize the transfer of useful technologies out of university laboratories, it is important that the business world be familiar with what they’re doing. This is not an easy task, however, as many researchers view them with suspicion. The best way to achieve the goal of trusting communication between the business and researcher worlds is constant and vigorous communication among the businesses and between the businesses and the university (including sharing their ideas wherever it doesn’t hurt them competitively.)

Within the business world, the Edmonton region has the beginnings of such a culture. It is driven, as it must be, by individual interest and effort, and it takes years for a cluster to develop the buzz that characterizes areas such as Silicon Valley or the Ottawa and Kitchener-Waterloo clusters in Ontario. One prominent example of this kind of attitude is Dr. Steve Petrone of Quantiam Technologies (see article p.26), who has established a Seed Investment Program that is designed to help new nanotechnology entrepreneurs do their initial tests and experiments on his equipment, often for little or no charge. These examples of community-based efforts have laid a foundation for a cluster buzz, which will grow in proportion to the number of companies producing products made with advanced materials.

4. A cohesive approach by all levels of government that supports, facilitates and helps in the financing and the facilities, but does not attempt to drive the process, although governments must be part of the communication loop in the region

With an investment of $130 million over the next five years, the Government of Alberta announced a comprehensive program for funding all aspects of nanotechnology. This Alberta Nanotechnology Strategy is particularly focused on encouraging industrial applications in the five priority areas for the province—energy, information and computer technology, life sciences, agriculture and forestry. One of the new initiatives of this strategy will be to introduce the $8 million Alberta Centre for Advanced MNT Products (ACAMP) (p.41). ACAMP will give companies access to services for product prototyping and development, packaging and assembly, and marketing of micro / nanotechnologies (MNT) enabled devices.

To further enrich the already impressive group of nanotechnology-focused researchers in Alberta, Alberta Ingenuity (p.42) has launched the Nanotechnology Accelerator program with a $100 million investment over the next ten years to attract Nobel-level scientists in nanotechnology to Albertan universities. The $150 million National Institute for Nanotechnology (p.48) located at the University of Alberta in Edmonton is supported by $12 million per year in core funding.

Alberta is also supported by a number of federal and other provincial government programs, discussed in the article on page 46,  that fund research and development programs in nanotechnology and advanced materials.

5. A dependable startup infrastructure that can provide the angel money and technical expertise to take an idea to prototype stage

The principal tools of the innovation system for this purpose are angel investors and the Alberta Centre for Advanced MNT Products (ACAMP) (see p.41) which is expected to open later in 2008.

6. A well-funded commercialization organization that can handle the IP, legal and commercialization financing issues with speed and competence

The two most important commercialization centres in the province are TEC Edmonton (p.42), and University Technologies International (UTI) (p.42), attached to the universities of Alberta located in Edmonton and Calgary respectively. Both these organizations are highly effective, although, like virtually every one of their counterparts throughout Canada, they could be even more effective with greater funding.

7.  A strong, local venture capital presence

The Alberta Government has established the Alberta Enterprise Corporation with $100 million support to spur venture capital investment in Alberta’s knowledge-based economy.

iNovia Capital is the first major seed and early stage private venture capital fund to establish operations in Alberta, and it expects to invest $107 million in a broad range of companies over the course of the next four years.