Archive for September 2009

Goodbye, Alberta Bonjour, Québec

September 2, 2009

Dr. John Cormier
Picomole Instruments founder and CEO

Picomole Instruments Inc. is leaving town.
Company founder and CEO Dr. John Cormier is relocating his company to Quebec City. In the works is an exciting new partnership with a yet to be revealed Quebec company which will help Picomole turn its prototype into a commercial product.
While the move is Edmonton’s loss, this is actually a good news story for Picomole, and we should anticipate it will have a happy, prosperous ending.
Picomole Instruments is a startup technology company that has developed a platform medical technology that could revolutionize the way doctors diagnose disease.
When asked to give his elevator pitch, Dr. Cormier fires without pause. “Picomole is all about LifeSens which is a point of care, diagnostic tool for rapid, ultra sensitive gas analysis. Basically, you blow into the box, you get an analysis of what’s in your breath within minutes. And the specific compounds that are found in your breath can be indicators of specific disease states, like diabetes, various cancers, cardio-vascular problems, and much more.”
Hence the company tagline, “Just Breathe”.
That’s the pitch that helped Cormier capture the Fast Growth Grand Prize in the 2007 VenturePrize Business Plan Competition, the largest competition of its kind in Canada. Since then, Picomole has gone on to win the BioAlberta Emerging Company of the Year award in 2008, and was recently named one of the Top 10 Canadian Angel Capital Companies by the National Angel Capital Organization. And just to top it all off, this summer, Dr. Cormier was named one of Alberta’s top 50 people of influence.
For a company that was only formed in 2005, what has turned it into the darling of Edmonton’s innovation community? Quite simply, Dr. Cormier has done all the right things for a startup as he moves from concept to commercialization.
He’s kept focused, surrounded himself with competent people, been frugal, and developed good partnerships with Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research, Alberta Ingenuity, and the National Research Council through its IRAP program.
I first met Dr. Cormier early in 2006. He was moving into the Research Transition Facility on the University of Alberta campus where I also had an office. This was only months after he’d made the big move to Edmonton from Washington DC, taking a short stint as chief scientific officer at Synodon, then setting up his first office at the Advanced Technology Centre in Edmonton’s Research Park. He would later move from RTF to the new NINT building on campus as his company ramped up activity on the LifeSens prototype.
My initial interview with him was in an office devoid of anything except a desk, phone and laptop. Our voices echoed off the walls as he told me about his invention, referring to graphics on his laptop.
Three and a half years later, Dr. Cormier is leaving Edmonton with a working prototype, a dedicated team of people, and the chance to make millions while changing the face of diagnostic medicine.
“The potential is enormous,” he says, somewhat in awe. “We’re working with a group of consultants who think that there is the potential for a 100,000 units sold, which really is astronomical.
“But I think what it says is that in the right hands and the right minds, people who understand how to produce and market a medical technology, it really is limitless potential.” Possible applications include clinical diagnostics, occupational health and safety, law enforcement, and environmental monitoring.

And then comes the zinger. “I don’t think this is too much of an exaggeration. This is a once in a 50-year kind of technology.”

Dr. Cormier hails from Moncton, New Brunswick. After receiving his PhD in Physic from the University of Toronto, he went on to do post doctorate work in Washington DC at the National Institute for Standards and Technology. His focus was a laser spectroscopy experiment with applications in greenhouse gas detection.
The Institute was hit with massive budget cuts, according to Dr. Cormier, “I think in order to fund the department of Homeland Security. Management came down and talked to various people and pointed out that the National Institutes of Health down the road didn’t have their budget cut. And so they asked us if they could find linkages between our research and health issues. And so, when you’re an atmospheric scientist, you’re always thinking about air. You know, air, breathe, hmmm, is there something there?”
With some research, Dr. Cormier discovered scientists had been trying for quite some time but without much luck to connect atmospheric analysis with medical diagnosis. Technically speaking, it was far too difficult a challenge. That is, until he came along.
“At that time, I was looking at an apparatus that was spread out on, above and below a 4 x 8 photo optical table. It was absolutely not automated by any stretch of the imagination. It required this simultaneous twiddling of six or seven knobs to get any data. And I kind of made that leap in my mind. I said, ‘I think there is something that could be adapted from this technology that would allow for ultra sensitive gas analysis but comprehensive so you can measure hundreds of compounds at the same time.’ And that was really the genesis of the idea for LifeSens.”
As for the name of the company, Dr. Cormier explains a picomole is a scientific measurement meaning a trillionth of a mole. “I just thought the name sounded really cool. What we’re doing is setting our ambition right in our name. We’re saying that our goal at Picomole Instruments is to build instrumentation that can detect a picomole of a given anilide in an exhaled air sample.” Anilides are class of chemical compounds, many of which are associated with various diseases.
Come mid-September, Cormier and Picomole Instruments Inc. will be moving out of the incubators and into the real world of business. “I’ve never had to read a lease in French. And I have to think about what our needs are going to be, because the commercial landlords are interested in five-year leases. So this is about getting more real in a sense. We’re going to be shoulder-to-shoulder with a chicken rotisserie and a tanning salon and a veterinary clinic. You know… real people who have real businesses that have to make a dollar to survive.”
What attracted Cormier to join up with his new partner in Quebec is the company’s vast experience in product development in the photonics sector. “We’re a relatively small team. We’re only five right now. And it would be difficult for us to productize our own technology with our limited experience in this area. But this company has over 200 engineers and scientists so it’s a very large company with a lot of depth of expertise in a lot of areas that are very relevant to what we are doing.”
While Picomole will be paying for the services of its new partner to scale up production on the LifeSens prototype, the partnership also involves an investment from the Quebec company.
Among the many plans for the future is shrinking the size of the LifeSens technology from that of a push around cart to a handheld device. And, looking ahead five years, says Dr. Cormier, “Well, if you believe our business plan, we’ll have about 140 employees.”
But for now, there is the immediate concern of getting a product to market. “This company asked me during our discussions to define what success would look like in our case. And the simplest way that I could put it for them is to say I need something I can sell in about a year.”
And they said? “Well, we’d better get started.” √

Cheryl Croucher


Innovotech receives green light for sale of bioFILM PA™ test

September 2, 2009

Dr. Wolfgang Muhs, chairman of Innovotech, Dr. Robert Rennie, Melanie, Ken Boutilier, president of Innovotech, Dr. Neil Brown, Dr. Merle Olson, researchdirector at Innovotech

In June, writer Greg Gazin interviewed Ken Boutilier, president and CEO of Innovotech Inc. for the July issue of Edmontonians. The focus of the article was the company’s breakthrough test that allows doctors to more accurately identify the right antibiotics required to treat serious, chronic infections that are biofilm based. Since at least 80 per cent of infections in the developed world are caused by biofilms, the development of bioFILM PA™ is of immense significance to the medical community.
Chronic infections place a major cost burden on the health system. Patients spend more time in hospitals, antibiotic costs and treatment costs increase as more aggressive treatment options are explored, and the potential always exists for these infections to cause death.
Now, bioFILM PA™ has shown very positive results in selecting proper antibiotic treatment for serious lung infections in patients with Cystic Fibrosis (CF), a population recognized as having among the most life threatening lung infections. Clinical research of bioFILM PA™ shows how the test can provide guidance to doctors on the right antibiotics to treat infections in a biofilm state. The University of Alberta Hospital laboratory, under the direction of Dr. Robert Rennie, site chief of Laboratory Medicine, and Dr. Neil Brown, director of the Adult Cystic Fibrosis Clinic, conducted the clinical research from 2007 to 2009.
The clinical research involved 14 patients with cystic fibrosis at the University of Alberta hospital CF clinic. The patients ranged from 9 to 51 years of age. One patient was receiving intravenous antibiotics for a lung infection but continued to decline in health and lung function. The same antibiotics had been used for an earlier infection and had been successful. The patient was hospitalized, the antibiotics were changed, but the patient continued to decline. Using the bioFILM PA™ kit as guidance, an additional antibiotic not normally used in CF lung infections was added. The patient responded to the treatment, was discharged and is still symptom free after more than one year.
In another case, a patient was on a lung transplant waiting list, and was receiving oral and inhaled antibiotics, but showed a continuous decline in health and lung function. The doctors admitted the patient to hospital in an attempt to stabilize the patient prior to transplantation. A bioFILM PA™ test was ordered and consequently a new combination of antibiotics was administered. The lung transplant was conducted successfully and the patient has been symptom free for more than two years.
At a news conference at the end of July, it was announced that bioFILM PA™ has received regulatory approval by Health Canada and is available for sale in Canada. It has also met all current standards of the Clinical Laboratory Standards Institute (CLSI) for reproducibility and consistency. Among those in attendance was Melanie, a young CF patient who had been part of the clinical trial and responded to treatment following the bioFILM PA™ test.
A further clinical evaluation of bioFILM PA™ on more than 200 CF patients is now underway at the Hospital for Sick Children and St. Michaels Hospital in Toronto. √

~ Barb Deters

Will nano crystalline cellulose save our forest products industry?

September 2, 2009

George Weyerhauser Jr.

According to forestry giant George Weyerhauser Jr., trees will play a big role in the nano revolution, and nano crystalline cellulose will be the hot new raw material.
Nano crystalline cellulose comes from all parts of the tree where cellulose and lignin are broken down into their molecular components. Then through nano fabrication, these molecules can be built up again into materials where the properties are precisely managed, designed and engineered.
At the recent TAPPI and Alberta Ingenuity Conference on Nanotechnology and Forest Products, Weyerhauser addressed the economics of this nano revolution for an industry facing tough times.
“The forest industry is just beginning to think [about] how we can turn these new materials into competitive products,” says the former president of Weyerhauser Canada. “And it’s going to take a major re-investment, a retooling of our labs in order to take products to the next commercialization step. On the other hand, the facilities that we use are all there. So getting the raw material from the woods to the factory, that’s not going to be any different. Getting the initial breakdown of the tree into the components, that will likely be the same. So we have the basic platform ready to go. It’s the knowledge that we have to invest in still. “
Because nano crystalline cellulose could supplant petroleum based chemicals as a manufacturing feedstock, Weyerhauser believes that, over the next two decades, the nano revolution in forest products will actually help the world reduce its energy consumption and carbon footprint.√

~ Cheryl Croucher

The mystery of misfolded prions

September 2, 2009

John Paul Glaves

Transmission is a big question for scientists studying prion disease. Misfolded prions are associated with mad cow and chronic wasting disease. What makes the misfolded prion infectious within a species, and what stops it from being transmitted between different species?
In his research, University of Alberta biochemist John Paul Glaves studied fragments of peptide fibrils or threadlike strands from elk and hamsters. Elk are susceptible to chronic wasting disease, but it’s very hard for hamsters to develop prion disease.
Glaves outlined his surprising results in a poster presented at the recent Prion Conference in Edmonton.
We’ve taken small fragments of the prion protein that have been known to form fibrils, and we’ve basically generated those based on different species. So there’s a small amount of variability in the sequences that we’ve chosen… we’re highlighting residues number 127 to 147 of the prion protein. You can just basically drop these small fragments of the prion protein in water and they spontaneously form fibrils.”
Glaves goes on to explain that, although there are only four changes in the 20 residue pepties, the researchers found there are gross morphological differences between the fibrils of elk and hamsters.
“What we hope to do,” he says, “is gain some high resolution information about these fibrils so we can see each individual residue and how it contributes to fibril formation. Then we can start to dissect whether these variations in sequences that we see between species… are important for so-called species barriers and transmission between different species.”
The next step for Glaves and his colleagues is to expand their research to other species and different parts of the prion protein. √

~ Cheryl Croucher

Artificial lake to replace Syncrude Oilsands Mine

September 2, 2009
Jim Lorentz

Jim Lorentz

In 2012, Syncrude will finish a pit where it has been  mining oil sands over the last two decades. In its place, the company will build a huge experimental lake it is calling Base Mine Lake.
As Syncrude’s technology development officer Jim Lorentz explains, dried tailings left over from oil sands production will form the lake bottom.
“That is where we add a layer of mature fine tails and then we cap it with a freshwater cap. The lake is designed to have latoral zones which are the shallow zones where some of the vegetation and stuff you see in lakes grow from, allowing a lot of sunlight to permeate through and encouraging biological activity.
“The belief is after 10 years, we would have enough biological activity at the point where we could start introducing more complex life, like fish and amphibians, those kind of things.”
According to Lorentz, Base Mine Lake builds on the success of a previous pilot program which involved the construction of a four-acre lake. He stresses future monitoring of the aquatic environment at will be extensive. √

~ Cheryl Croucher

Social Media 101

September 1, 2009

101This year’s Edmonton International Fringe Festival was absolutely terrific. As of my deadline, I’ve seen a total of four shows: Pitch Blond by Vancouver-born Laura Harris; Garret Spellicy‘s local production The Lavender, South Korea; and Red Bastard by Eric Davis out of New York.
I saw the latter two because the fusedlogic team streamed both shows live via video over the Internet as part of our social media project with Fringe Theatre Adventures (FTA), the folks behind North America’s largest and longest running fringe festival.
The FTA had yet to engage in the social web beyond a Facebook group. This year, however, Industry Canada’s Marquee Tourism Program enabled a specific focus on generating awareness and interest in the festival and the city tourism options for fringe enthusiasts abroad.
Edmonton’s Fringe Festival broke new social media ground in several ways, including the streaming of three live webcasts all across Canada and for international audiences in places like the Philippines, United Kingdom and United States, plus Greece and Belgium.  A key approach to this campaign was to involve the Fringe community directly, encouraging both international and local performers to blog about their experiences at  In the first six days of the festival, more than 100 blog posts from 10 different bloggers, including me, were generated.  Local photographers who are on Twitter also showcased our city and festival. Starting with a brand new group for this year, Edmonton now has the largest Flickr group of Fringe-related pictures in the world.  Well over 1300 photos in under 10 days – amazing.  Top contributors by Twitter handle were @Livingsantuary, @Sirthinkd, @Pixelens, @Cyclopsphoto, @Eadnams, @Wburris, and @PaulNey.  And thanks to everyone else who posted pictures.
To continue in the spirit of the Fringe,  I decided to take advantage of being around so many talented perfomers.  I interviewed the very talented Edmonton native street magician, Billy Kidd.  We talked about her life spent performing on the world’s streets, and her use of social media to promote her act.  Currently living in Bath, England, she still enjoys coming home.  From a perfomer’s perspective, she says “Edmonton’s Fringe crowds are great and there are less street performers here to compete with”, as compared to say Edinburgh’s Festival Fringe which tends to have far more performers.
When talking to Kidd about her online activities, she explained that she’s on Facebook under different name and for different purpose related to “nose flutes”. Bill Kidd is her magician persona and currently her social media activity is next to zero in support of that particular act. Although she admits that Internet does help: ” I get lots of e-mails from people who have seen the show.”  Kidd’s website is fairly basic and if, you Google her name, there is little in terms of a content footprint.  Certainly this result doesn’t support the great live audience experience produced when she “works her magic” curb side. I suspect it’s because she’s only been performing the Billy Kidd magic act for the “past year or so”.

billi kidd
We did an on-camera interview which is up on the Fringe-focused ShowYouOurs Youtube channel. Further, the pictures and video docummenting her performances here should definetly help increase exposure for her around the world – increased evidence that Edmonton has a “magical world ambassador” in Billy Kidd.