Turning research into INNOV4TION
To celebrate the first four years of the Fessenden Professorships and Prizes in Science Innovation, Headway looks at four of the many ways the program has helped McGill researchers translate their ideas into products — because there’s more to getting the world to notice your innovative ideas than just building the proverbial better mousetrap. //
By Dana Yates
When it comes to supporting innovation, Canadian researchers need all the help they can get. In the Conference Board of Canada’s annual Innovation Report Card, Canada ranked 14th out of the 17 industrialized countries surveyed. As a nation, we’re particularly poor at getting research breakthroughs into the marketplace; when it comes to patents (relative to population), we trail all but Ireland, Australia and Italy. Thanks to a unique funding program in McGill University’s Faculty of Science, however, it’s becoming easier for researchers to turn their discoveries into commercially available technologies.
Launched in 2008, the annual Fessenden Professorships in Science Innovation were created by a $1.25-million donation from John Blachford, BEng’59, PhD’63, and his wife, Janet. The program is also supported by a $750,000 contribution from a confidential donor. The Fessenden Prizes in Science Innovation were made possible by a further gift by John and Janet’s son, Erik Blachford. The Fessenden program honours Blachford’s great-uncle, the late Canadian inventor Reginald Aubrey Fessenden. Among his achievements, Fessenden made the first radio broadcast of the human voice, two days before Christmas 1900. (The voice was his, the message distinctly Canadian: “Is it snowing where you are?”)
The Fessenden initiatives consist of two types of awards. Fessenden Prizes, which are awarded to professors and students, recognize McGill research results that have clear commercialization potential and provide between $2,500 to $4000 of funding. Fessenden Professorships promote the development of spin-off companies and are worth between $25,000 and $70,000 for one year of funding.
The technology transfer process is akin to launching a rocket, says Gregory Dudek, director of McGill’s School of Computer Science and the McGill Mobile Robotics Laboratory. “First, one engine fires up and then the next one. Once you have lift -off, everything goes faster and faster.”
In 2009, Dudek was awarded a Fessenden Prize, and in the following year, received a professorship. Those awards, he says, were critical. Indeed, they helped him purchase research equipment, hire support staff and finally launch a successful spinoff company.
Now, Dudek is president of the Montreal-based firm Independent Robotics Inc. (IRI). Also involving Michael Jenkin of York University, entrepreneur Martin Stanley, McGill mechanical engineering graduate Chris Prahacs and mechanical engineer Bir Bikram Dey, the company develops intelligent, autonomous robots — the kind that explore environments in which people dare not go. Namely, the deepest areas of the ocean.
In the underwater world, humans are limited by the number of oxygen tanks they can carry, the depths to which they can descend and the delicacy of the aquatic ecosystem. IRI’s amphibious robots can, however, create 3-D models of what lies 30 metres beneath the waves, monitor quantities of fish and measure the effcts of climate change on coral reefs.
That sort of in-depth investigation also characterizes Nicolas Moitessier’s research. But instead of studying undersea environments, he is taking a virtual look-see into the human body.
An associate professor of chemistry and co-founder of the spinoff company Molecular Forecaster, Moitessier has developed soft ware that predicts how medications will behave in the body.
The soft ware relies upon 3-D drawings of molecules, which are intended to simulate the properties of drugs. Using these molecule models, Moitessier can determine how a drug will perform and how the medication will be cleared from the body. That advance knowledge could one day transform the drug development process.
“Currently, it takes about 15 years and $1 billion to bring a drug to market. So, instead of running thousands of time-consuming and expensive tests, we could have the results in minutes,” says Moitessier.
In addition, he notes, the soft ware could protect people from unexpected drug toxicity and the planet from excessive use of pharmaceutical chemicals.
Through his 2008 Fessenden Professorship, Moitessier recruited a research assistant, Université de Montréal PhD grad Éric Therrien, to move the work forward. In fact, Therrien turned out to be so helpful that he eventually became co-founder and president of Molecular Forecaster. And today, Moitessier and Therrien’s company has copyrighted its soft ware and is in negotiations to sell its services to other firms.
That kind of success has also been experienced by chemistry professor Masad Damha. The recipient of a 2010 Fessenden Professorship, Damha has applied his funding toward two research projects.
The first uses a procedure called RNA interference to slow the spread of brain tumours. The initiative also involves researcher Kevin Petrecca of the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital, and Glen Deleavey and Jovanka Bogojeski, two PhD candidates in McGill’s Department of Chemistry.
By creating a compound that mimics double-stranded RNA (a key player in the production of proteins), Damha and Petrecca are tricking the body into stopping tumour growth by disrupting the proteinmanufacturing process.
“When you target the process that produces proteins, instead of proteins themselves, it’s like you’re turning off the tap instead of mopping up the fl oor,” says Damha, who used part of his Fessenden funding to hire Swedish postdoctoral fellow Richard Johnsson.
Today, Damha’s RNA technology is owned by Paladin, a Quebec-based pharmaceutical company.
In Damha’s second project, a partnership with Mark Somoza of the University of Vienna, the researchers are improving the way that RNA is grown on delicate glass chips. While producing RNA in this manner helps researchers spot genetic mutations, the chips are easily scratched — and the RNA quality compromised — by the chemical agent involved in synthesis. Damha invented a new method for synthesizing RNA that prevents etching of the RNA chip. What’s more, McGill is now working to license the technology to a company in the United States. (The company cannot be named until the deal is finalized.)
Like Damha, Aleksander Labuda has also had some market-shaking ideas — and he has applied them to molecular-sized matter.
A PhD student in physics, Labuda is interested in atomic force microscopes (AFM), instruments that generate high-resolution images of surfaces in liquids, air and vacuums.
AFMs, however, have limitations. Labuda’s efforts to improve the resolution and reliability of these tools have earned him two Fessenden Prizes. The first, which was awarded in 2010, recognized his development of a new methodology to further improve the resolution of AFMs, bringing the images, he says, “closer to the fundamental limits set by physics.”
Labuda’s second award, which was bestowed in 2011, acknowledged his work to design a unique AFM system in collaboration with Dilson Rassier, a McGill kinesiology professor.
Their patented technology measures the force of isolated myofibrils — the smallest parts of muscles that can be separated and still maintain structural integrity — when they are activated. “If we can better understand how myofibrils work,” says Labuda, “we will understand how entire muscles work. Since muscle contraction is responsible for basic functions in life, including locomotion, and heart beating, and is severely affected in diseases such as muscular dystrophy and cardiomyopathy, this technology has far-reaching implications.” Discussions are now underway with potential industrial partners to commercialize Labuda and Rassier’s system.
To that end, Labuda credits the Fessenden Prize with making him aware of the many steps involved in bringing a product to market. “The prizes force you to think of marketing, competition, potential risks — basically everything that has to do with commercializing an invention.”
The Fessenden initiatives to promote innovation are possible thanks to gift s by the family of Canadian inventor Reginald Fessenden. McGill University does not receive any financial compensation from these start-up companies or the products they sell.