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Alberta Innovates: Positioning Alberta For Global Competitiveness

Collaboration Cultivates Innovation

Oct 3, 2016


“Innovation is multidisciplinary and technologically complex. It arises from the intersections of different fields or spheres of activity. That is why it often takes a group of people who are not only highly talented but who bring together diverse skills and points of view in order to successfully challenge the kinds of complex problems we face in the 21st century.”
– Irving Wladawsky-Berger, Chairman Emeritus, IBM Academy of Technology from The Challenges of Innovation Bloomberg website, August 22, 2008

A Message from the Minister of Economic Development and Trade

Deron Bilous, minister of Economic Development and Trade

Albertans have many reasons to be proud of the work being done in our provincial research and innovation system. It helps create thousands of new jobs through technological advances, saves lives with breakthroughs in medical research and protects the environment with new technology and management strategies.

Your Alberta government has a plan to improve the way it supports research and innovation. The plan includes consolidating the four discipline-based Alberta Innovates corporations into one. The new Alberta Innovates will provide researchers, entrepreneurs and small businesses with one organization to work with to meet their needs. It will align with government direction and focus on Alberta’s strengths in environment, energy, food, fibre, bio industry and health. This will help us leverage other sources of funding – such as from the federal government – and build partnerships with some of the world’s largest and most successful corporations.

These efforts are part of the Alberta Jobs Plan’s initiative to position Alberta on the cutting edge of research, innovation and commercialization. In Budget 2016, our government allocated approximately $170 million to Alberta Innovates to drive research and innovation, and the consolidation helps optimize this investment. This consolidation will also help find solutions to environmental, health and social challenges, and support the priorities our government has set out to accomplish, including initiatives to develop a sustainable, prosperous and diversified economy.

With these changes, Alberta Innovates will be well positioned to take advantage of current and future opportunities. I’m extremely proud of Alberta’s research and innovation system, and I’m confident the new corporation will harness Alberta’s entrepreneurial spirit and research excellence to build an innovative culture in the province that supports research discoveries, job creation and economic growth.

A Message from the Chair of the Board

Judy Fairburn, Chair of Alberta Innovates Board

On behalf of the Board of Alberta Innovates, I’m proud to offer you this introduction to our Corporation. Alberta is a province known for its resource-based economy, yet our greatest opportunity is innovation.

It was Steve Jobs who is credited with saying, “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.”

The economic and environmental pressures facing Alberta have been intense. Alberta Innovates is our province’s rallying cry: working together to tackle our province’s key priorities, we will succeed in the global innovation race.

Since 2010, when the Alberta Innovates corporations were first established – Bio Solutions, Energy and Environment Solutions, Health Solutions and Technology Futures – we have been working to solve the greatest challenges facing our province. We are advancing technologies to convert garbage into value-added fuels, reduce the size of oil sands tailings ponds, cut the amount of water required to produce bitumen by 50 percent, grow prosperity in our agriculture, food and forestry sectors, and we are supporting research that is leading to breakthroughs that improve health and health care. The impacts are felt not just in our province, but around the world. Now we have the opportunity to have even more impact.

Focusing our research and innovation system will make us stronger, help us innovate faster, and build our global leadership position in key sectors with made-in-Alberta solutions. Most importantly, the new Alberta Innovates will make it easier for researchers, small and medium enterprises, Campus Alberta and industry partners to collaborate and turn challenges into opportunities.

On behalf of the Board, I’m proud of what we have achieved so far, but I’m even more excited about our potential, together.

Positioning Alberta For Global Competitiveness
Lindsey Logan, recipient of Alberta Innovates’ Cy Frank Outstanding Graduate Student Award

Building an educated workforce
Approximately 920 young Albertans receive support from Alberta Innovates to further their training and expand their career horizons. An example is a funding partnership between Alberta Innovates and MITACS which provides on-the-job training for Alberta university students in different fields for
at least a year.

Making innovation work for Alberta is the key to unlocking our economic potential, creating new knowledge and new jobs, and moving great ideas into real global potential. Innovation starts with looking at a problem, need or challenge with an eye to a different approach. It flourishes when there is a solid and connected support system in place to move a great idea into implementation and full potential.

At Alberta Innovates, we understand that developing a great idea into a new technology, product, process or therapy is never a given. It means taking risks, using a broad array of supports, and investing the time and input of many people working together, across disciplines, sectors and areas of expertise.

We take pride in our history of supporting innovation collectively – with partners in small business, industry, the post-secondary system, the health system and all levels of government.

The challenges we face in Alberta are faced the world over. And we are tackling them in our own backyard, with home-grown talent and ingenuity, often yielding made-in-Alberta successes and solutions. You will read about just a few of them in the pages that follow and we encourage you to learn more by visiting our website at

How do we create more precise tests for diagnoses and analyses?
Tiny Detectives Finding Big Clues
Albertan researchers – and companies – are taking the global lead in metabolomics testing

Metabolomic tests can help Alberta ranchers brand their beef as safe and nutritious

Tangible Results
For every dollar invested by Alberta Innovates in a small or medium enterprise, the company’s revenue grew by $4.80 and the company was able to leverage that into an additional $9.50 in investment (on average, based on the 157 tech-based SMEs
supported by Alberta Innovates between 2011 and 2015).

Bioeconomic Opportunity
Alberta is well positioned to become a leader in the global bioeconomy and an exporter of green products. Alberta Innovates funding supports auto parts made from hemp, flax and wood fibre (BCG Composites), renewable fuel from canola oil (SBI Bioenergy), crack-
reducing concrete additive made from agriculture fibres (Canadian Greenfield Technologies) and engineered wood products like plywood made with natural lignin-based resin to partially replace synthetic resin.

Faster stroke care
Alberta Innovates supports research that is changing the lives of people who have strokes. Neurologist Michael Hill and his team at the University of Calgary are revolutionizing stroke care with a new procedure that removes deadly brain clots faster. Now, working with stroke centres across Alberta, they have reduced by half the time it takes for a patient to receive the clot removal treatment.

In 2008, two physicians in Edmonton wanted to improve on the standard screening test for colon cancer – the fecal immune test. Doctors Richard Fedorak and Haili Wang, who are also professors at the University of Alberta, found that the test sometimes came back negative when in fact cancer had spread. And even if the test came back positive, it might be too late. The test looks for blood in the stool: If a patient already has that, they might have late-stage colon cancer and require chemotherapy and other more invasive treatments.

The two doctors knew that polyps in the colon that are seen during a colonoscopy are known to develop into cancer. They are easily snipped off during a colonoscopy, but performing a colonoscopy just to search for these polyps is invasive and expensive.

Fedorak and Wang wanted to develop a more precise diagnostic tool that could identify when polyps are present. To get that precision, they turned to the developing field of metabolomics, which measures tiny molecules, called metabolites, found in a person’s bodily fluids. Metabolites are the by-products of cell processes and are as unique as fingerprints. Blood tests for diabetes and urine tests to confirm pregnancy are two examples of metabolomics tests. “There are a lot of these naturally occurring chemicals in your body which will change depending on certain diseases that you may or may not have,” says David Chang, the chief operating officer of Metabolomic Technologies Inc., the firm that Fedorak and Wang founded to commercialize their research.

Working with Alberta Health Services, Metabolomic Technologies Inc. developed PolypDx, a urine-based diagnostic test for pre-cancerous polyps. It is highly accurate and, since it’s easy to use, has a high compliance rate. The technology could save lives and health care costs. The company has licensed the technology to Pennsylvania-based Atlantic Diagnostic Laboratories in a multi-million dollar deal. “The U.S. offers a commercialization path with a greater speed to revenue,” says Chang. “We’re an Albertan company and want the technology in Alberta, but right now we’re pretty focused on the U.S. market.”

Fedorak and Wang benefited from the fact that Alberta is a global hub of metabolomics research, thanks in part to funding from Alberta Innovates. Under the leadership of Dr. David Wishart, the University of Alberta’s Metabolomics Innovation Centre conducts cutting-edge research and helped spawn a number of startup companies. In fact, Edmonton is now home to most of the world’s metabolomics firms.

Medical tests for human diseases are only the beginning of metabolomics’ promise.

Researchers have developed high-quality metabolomics tests to help identify dairy cattle at risk for costly lactation diseases and beef cattle at risk for prion diseases like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease). They are developing new tests to perform rapid food,
crop, soil and forestry analysis. “By taking a world-leading position in how food is characterized and using metabolomics to better understand food, Alberta producers may be able to brand their food products in new ways,” says Wishart. “This will create added value and give Alberta a key advantage in the food exports market. At the same time, Alberta food consumers may become the most informed food connoisseurs in the world.”

How do we develop green tools and technologies?
Big Things Come In Small Packages
Cellulose nanocrystals hold a tonne of promise, and Alberta is leading the way

A researcher sprinkles cellulose nanocrystals (cncs) on a pot of wheatgrass. Cncs are derived from cellulose, the most abundant organic polymer on earth

Waste-to-fuel research
At the Advanced Energy Research Facility in Edmonton, university, government and industry researchers are finding more efficient ways to convert waste into clean sources of energy and green bioproducts. The $11-million facility, created through a partnership between Alberta Innovates and the City of Edmonton, attracts researchers working on new technologies that help companies accelerate the commercial deployment of their technologies and processes.

Addressing water usage in bitumen extraction
Alberta is developing upgrading and bitumen recovery technologies that will reduce the enormous quantities of water and energy currently used. Alberta Innovates and University of Alberta’s Oilsands Innovation Research Chair Dr. Zhen Xu are working to completely eliminate the use of water in extraction processes, reduce the need for solvent and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and heat.

Landfill-free Alberta
Alberta has the highest waste generation rate in Canada. Such “wastes” include municipal solid waste (MSW), petcoke, agri-forestry wastes, industrial wastes and wastewater. The waste is stored in 150 landfills, various industrial sites and more than 600 waste lagoons. Landfill-Free Alberta works with municipalities to turn one person’s garbage into value-added fuels. Through this initiative, Alberta has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 16 megatonnes of CO2E/year.

Belinda Heyne says her goal is similar to that of the Tom Cruise character in Minority Report, whose job it was to catch bad guys before a crime had been committed. But rather than criminals, the chemistry professor from the University of Calgary is targeting the infectious bacteria that live on hospital surfaces, in particular walls and privacy curtains. “Hospitals are an amazing reservoir for microbes and infections,” she says.

Heyne is working with Alberta Innovates funding to develop a coating made from cellulose nanocrystals (CNCs) that will kill bacteria with the flip of a switch, like a germ-fighting Scotchgard ™. “We’ve altered the nanocrystals so they respond to regular light,” she says. “Just switch the light on, and it will kill the bacteria.”

That’s hardly the only intriguing possibility for CNCs. These crystals, a billionth of a metre in size, are made from fibres extracted from plants and trees that add stiffness and strength to many materials. CNCs also have electro-magnetic response and a large surface area. “CNC is stronger than steel,” says Steve Price, a president and COO of Alberta Innovates. “It allows conversion of sunlight into electricity. It is used in adhesives and thickening agents, for applications such as aircraft de-icing and oil well exploration.”

Three years ago, to jump start research and commercialization, Alberta Innovates, in partnership with academic and industrial partners, built one of the few facilities in the world that can produce a significant volume of this nanomaterial. “The Alberta Bio Future program accelerates the growth of a small, but established, bioindustrial sector in Alberta,” Price says. “The program adds value to our renewable agriculture and forestry resources by identifying opportunities and acting as a catalyst to get things done by bringing together academics, government and industry.”

And entrepreneurs are stepping up to the plate. Alberta Innovates recently announced funding for 11 new CNC projects, including one underway at Edmonton-based manufacturer All-Weather Windows. The company is developing a coating that will allow window glass to dim automatically in response to UV and visible sunlight as well as provide thermal insulation.

Another project is led by Mike Kennedy, founder and CEO of Edmonton-based BioFoam Inc., which is developing a spray foam that uses renewable, non-food grade canola as a feedstock. He says it will reduce the environmental and climate impacts of foam-spray insulation in the construction industry.

“With the support of Alberta Innovates, we’ve taken a product that was at the lab scale and are moving it through to commercialization, with the goal of having a full scale facility in Alberta by 2018,” Kennedy says. “The market pull for our product is very clear: Alberta has made energy efficiency a high priority, and our product looks to be one of the lowest cost opportunities to create energy efficiency improvements.”

How do we deliver clean energy with the smallest footprint possible?
Alberta’s Value Village
Adding value to primary resources can be a long, expensive undertaking. Those who come out on top sometimes need help to get there

Enerkem Alberta Biofuels Is A Full Scale Waste-To-Fuels Facility Built With The Support Of Alberta Innovates

The Real Story
Alberta Innovates has been working with government and industry since 2012 to study the properties of Alberta’s oil sands products and understand how they react with the environment if spilled. Providing evidence-based science about these resources when compared to other products is vital to market access for Alberta. Alberta Innovates’ work on the effects of diluted bitumen in comparison to conventional crudes has shown the acute environmental risks associated with diluted bitumen are less or no more than those of conventional crudes.

Adding Value to Bitumen
Alberta Innovates has supported MEG Energy, which is developing Hi-Q, a technology that improves the quality of oil sands-based bitumen, allowing it to be shipped in pipelines without being blended with light hydrocarbons. Hi-Q could increase pipeline capacity by up to 30% which would open new markets for the province.

Neil Camarta knows old habits die hard. Consider that he’s retired twice already, the first after 30 years of travelling the world with Shell, the second after a stint with Petro-Canada during the whirlwind of the company’s merger with Suncor. But the president and CEO of Field Upgrading, who came out of his second retirement to found the Calgary-based technology development company with industry veteran Guy Turcotte, is tackling a different kind of habit. Camarta knows that Alberta’s oil and gas sector has expended considerable energy fighting the “dirty oil” label. Now, with Field Upgrading’s novel heavy-oil upgrading technology, Camarta wants that label gone for good.

“We take the ‘dirty’ out of ‘dirty oil,’” Camarta says as he explains his company’s desulphurization and upgrading process. It removes sulphur, heavy metals and acids out of bitumen – the thick, sticky oil extracted from the oil sands – with elemental molten sodium. While there are other approaches for removing toxic sulphur from heavy oil, “they tend to be big and complex and have a lot of emissions, too,” Camarta says. In contrast, Field Upgrading has developed a process that is cheaper to put in place and has no direct greenhouse gas emissions. “It’s an environmentally friendly process that produces an environmentally friendly product,” he adds.

Field Upgrading is targeting the shipping industry, which produces an outsize amount of sulphur dioxide and is under regulatory pressure to curb its pollution levels. The company already has an operational pilot plant in Fort Saskatchewan that opened in December 2015, and it’s working on scaling up production with a demonstration refinery. Camarta says it’s a risky play, but one with tremendous payoff – not just for Field Upgrading, but for anyone interested in reducing industry’s environmental footprint.

But how, exactly, does a company of Field Upgrading’s size fund the development of this kind of technology, with its massive costs and long payback period? “You can’t get the [financial support] from banks, because they’re not going to help out with risky business like developing new technologies,” Camarta says. So as far back as 2011, he went to Alberta Innovates, where the potential windfall from adding this kind of value to bitumen was evident. A partnership with Alberta Innovates brought technical guidance, including analysis that supported the pilot plant operation in Fort Saskatchewan, and a financial vote of confidence.

“When small companies go looking for funding, they usually have to give something up to get something,” Camarta says. “We’ve avoided all that thanks to Alberta Innovates. We have a homegrown technology that really fits Alberta’s resource industry, and they gave us funding at the right time so we still have the freedom that we had in the beginning.”

That’s also what David Bressler, a researcher with the University of Alberta, credits for the recent successes of Forge Hydrocarbons. Since 2003, Bressler has been working with biofuels, including agricultural feedstocks and low-value oil, like animal fat, crop seed oil and brown and yellow grease, which can be converted into fuel without a catalyst or hydrogen – both of which are typically required in the production of biofuels. He licensed some patents to the company, who then brought in strategic investments from across the world. Today, Forge Hydrocarbons is reaping the rewards: the company just received $4.2 million from Sustainable Development Technology Canada for a new production plant that will produce almost 20 million litres of biofuel annually.

Bressler says grants from Alberta Innovates helped him take the research across the so-called “valley of death” – the early stage period of a company before it brings in meaningful revenue. That support allowed Forge Hydrocarbons – which is itself a spinoff company from the University of Alberta – to capitalize on a market-ready technology. “These grants are critical to help the technology get the proof of concept that allows you to generate business cases for investment in commercial plants,” he says. “Alberta Innovates understands how to support companies while they’re at their most vulnerable, in terms of their revenue streams.”

Adding value, then, can be an arduous and capital-intensive undertaking, one that requires supports to see visionary projects through to completion without hurrying for quick returns. The businesses that find success – such as Forge Hydrocarbons and Field Upgrading – need the kind of support that only an organization like Alberta Innovates can offer. Alberta, after all, is in the business of innovation – and that’s one habit it won’t kick anytime soon.

How do we grow our local companies into global competitiveness?
Made-In-Alberta For Global Impact
Alberta’s entrepreneurs are targeting the global market while strengthening and diversifying the economy back home

Breanne Everett, CEO of Orpyx

Technological innovation isn’t reserved for large, well-established enterprises. Sometimes, it’s the little guys and the young guns that make the greatest technological leap. That’s why Alberta Innovates places a special focus on small and medium enterprises (SMEs). While small, SMEs are mighty and are driven by the entrepreneurial spirit. “There is recognition that the entrepreneurs within our province are one of our paths to economic diversification and economic growth,” says Cory Fries, President and COO of Alberta Innovates.

One such entrepreneur is Breanne Everett, CEO of Orpyx Medical Technologies, based in Calgary. A physician by trade, Everett treated diabetic patients who had lost feeling in their feet, a condition called neuropathy, that can lead to the development of wounds and ulcers. These are difficult to treat and can lead to limb amputations. “It was clear the reason these patients were developing wounds was because they lacked the ability to realize when they were hurting themselves,” says Everett. She tackled the problem by developing a wearable technology called SurroSense – an insole worn in the shoe that tracks data and lets patients know when pressure on their feet reaches dangerous, tissue damaging levels.  

To date, a quarter of Orpyx’s funding has come from grant sources. “Over the course of us existing as a company, Alberta Innovates has become the de facto source for technology grants in the province,” says Everett. “We have found them to be an incredible partner in the course of this development. Alberta Innovates bent over backwards to make sure this really important program was being supported.” Everett is now working to integrate SurroSense into Alberta’s health care system for high- risk patients.

Like Orpyx, Edmonton-based dental technologies company SmileSonica is taking steps to add value to health care with the help of Alberta Innovates. Its Aevo System, developed at the University of Alberta, reduces the time needed to straighten teeth. The product’s commercial potential was apparent to CEO Cristian Scurtescu. In 2009, a year after SmileSonica was founded, Alberta Innovates was on board. “Alberta Innovates helped fund the first hire other than me,” says Scurtescu. “I called one of our advisors and said, ‘Good news, we just doubled our engineering team!’”

With Alberta Innovates’ support, SmileSonica took the Aevo System through each step necessary for commercialization: development, prototyping, clinical trials and finally, approval. So far, the Aevo System is approved in Europe and Australia and is waiting for the OK in Canada. “Alberta Innovates planted the seeds at the right time and helped us grow,” says Scurtescu. “We have a good opportunity to grow more, have significance in the field and help patients in real life improve their health.”

Innovative SMEs like Orpyx and SmileSonica not only change peoples’ lives, but are economic drivers: creating jobs, exporting products and boosting Alberta’s GDP. Thomas Stachura, CEO of Pleasant Solutions, an Edmonton-based custom software development company, is another business leader who understands the importance of homegrown. “All our core development is done exclusively out of Edmonton and we’d like to keep it that way,” says Stachura. “The net effect helps the GDP; we are selling abroad so that creates a net flow of cash into the province.”

Alberta Innovates has supported Pleasant Solutions throughout its maturation, funding a patent application and the company’s first marketing employee. But to Stachura, the greatest value of their partnership with Alberta Innovates is the advice received from Alberta Innovates advisors and mentors, and the subsequent networking opportunities. “If it wasn’t for their connections and introductions, we would not be where we are right now, breaking into the defense sector,” says Stachura.

Since its creation nine years ago, Pleasant Solutions has consistently doubled employees each year. Now they’re looking at tripling, possibly quadrupling their workforce in 2016, and are moving from their 9,000-square-foot office to 30,000 square feet in preparation. “Pleasant Solutions is growing very, very quickly,” says Fries. “They attract top-notch talent.” While they may not be so little any more, Stachura continues to reach out to Alberta Innovates for mentorship and advice.

“They are sometimes accessible to me at 8:00 p.m. – like us entrepreneurs, they are still in the office!” says Stachura. “They have a huge amount of passion for Alberta and the industries here.”

A Bold New Direction

Alberta Innovates is a bold new direction for our province. It’s a consolidation of four Alberta Innovates agencies: Bio Solutions, Energy & Environment Solutions, Health Solutions and Technology Futures, into a single super agency, complemented by a wholly owned subsidiary for applied research.

Alberta Innovates’ services and supports span health, energy, environment, food and fibre across the continuum from basic research to applied research to commercialization. As a single Alberta Innovates, we are taking down walls and building a new collaborative approach to provincial challenges. As one agency, we have the horsepower and strategic ability to develop global competitiveness in clear areas of provincial research and innovation strength.

Alberta Innovates represents the growing knowledge economy of Alberta. We’re capitalizing on the experience and brain power of our staff to provide single door access to research and innovation services, supports and funding for our clients and stakeholders. Our existing partnerships with small business, Campus Alberta, the health system, industry and others are the foundation for our collective successes to date and we are actively seeking further collaborations to maximize the potential impact of innovations on many levels.

We are strongly rooted in Alberta and we are reaching for the world. It’s the right time and the right place for Alberta Innovates. /



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