Goodbye, Alberta Bonjour, Québec

Sept09-JohnCormier-2

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


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