The curtain rises on TECTA-PDS’s latest act

Article Date: May 9, 2017

TECTA-PDS never left Kingston but today it is truly at home here.

On May 11, the manufacturer of the world’s first automated system for microbiological water testing is holding an open house in its corporate offices at 382 King Street East in downtown Kingston, to celebrate the return of its ownership to Canadian hands. 

These new headquarters set the stage for the latest act in a multi-year performance that has seen the company grow from lab to start-up, to scale-up, to global pacesetter in E. coli testing, a market valued at an estimated $2.2 billion a year worldwide. 

TECTA-PDS’s story begins here in Kingston in the early part of this century. Seven people had died in the town of Walkerton, Ontario, after drinking contaminated water in Canada’s worst-ever outbreak of E. coli. Among the factors leading to this preventable disaster were shortcomings in how water was tested for E. coli and dangerous delays caused because samples had to be sent to an outside lab. The government wanted to know what could be done to prevent such a disaster in the future. In response, an interdisciplinary group of researchers at Queen’s University’s joined with industrial partners to find a solution. Their goal, says Stephen Brown, the lead inventor and a professor of chemistry and environmental studies, was to develop a fully automated system that “would provide laboratory-grade results and be portable enough that you could take it to a town like Walkerton and test the water on the spot.” Thus was Pathogen Detection Systems born.

Doug Wilton, a Queen’s engineer by training and the firm’s CEO, joined the young company in 2005, becoming its second-ever employee. The firm set up in the ground floor of the Biosciences Building at Queen’s in an incubation space controlled by KTEC, a collaboration between the University and Kingston’s economic development agency. 

By 2008, says Wilton, “We had a prototype and our first regulatory approval, but we still needed a lot of commercialization work to take it to market.” They had to find a major partner. French water giant Veolia Environment seemed a good fit. “They were,” he says, “willing to take a risk on a start-up company with a technology that could potentially revolutionize water testing.” Folded into Veolia’s new water monitoring division (Endetec), and with their future financing intact, the fledgling firm moved to larger labs and offices on the 4th floor of the Biosciences building. 

For several years, Endetec continued to grow. Then, in 2014, trouble hit. “The challenging economy led to a massive reorganization from the very top on down [at Veolia],” says Wilton. Facing high debt levels and slow growth, a new CEO decided. Veolia needed to concentrate on its core businesses. And everything else was under review. Endetec just didn’t fit. “Our division was a luxury that could no longer be justified,” he says.

What might have been a catastrophe for the young firm turned into an opportunity. “They [Veolia] could have said, ‘Let’s just be done with it,’” says Wilton, and wound up Endetec completely. Instead, in mid-2016, he was given the chance to spin off the business and create TECTA-PDS. “I am very appreciative of the people at Veolia who made that conscious decision.”

The decision cemented the company’s connection to Kingston. “Under Veolia, we were surprised that we hadn’t been moved, and there was always a risk that we would be,” says Wilton. “But now we are able to say we’re privately held and we have no intention of going anywhere.” Focusing on Kingston brings benefits. The key ingredient in their detection system had been produced at GreenCentre Canada since 2012; now the actual manufacture of the portable testing units has been brought home from the United Kingdom and handed over to Kingston-based Bojak Manufacturing. “Richard [Zakrzewski, Bojak’s president] was at Transformix when they built our original prototype in 2006. When we were bringing the manufacturing back here, Richard was just starting Bojak. It’s the sort of thing that could only happen in Kingston,” says Wilton. The company continues to work closely with Queen’s. “We’ve had a formal research agreement with Queen’s since the beginning,” says Wilton, “and we’ve just launched a new collaboration.” PARTEQ Innovations, Queen’s commercialization arm, helped secure their patents, and Wilton praises patent agent Stephen Scribner, who continues to work with the company on strengthening these. Over the years about 20 Queen’s students have worked on different research projects relating to the company’s products; some have gone on to join TECTA-PDS on a fulltime basis.  The company now employs about a dozen people in Kingston plus those involved in the manufacturing of the components. “We’re very much part of the Kingston community, very much part of the Ontario community, and we’re part of this broader ecosystem of innovation, technology development and clean technology,” says Wilton. 

Today the company’s products are in use in about 25 countries. They continue to focus on E. coli testing, a global market that Wilton estimates is growing at a rate of 6-7 percent a year. “We’re working very closely with the Federal Government, and by the end of this year, we’ll be in two dozen First Nations communities with our technology,” he says. In addition, major water companies, such as the Las Vegas Valley Water District and Singapore’s Public Utilities Board are using TECTA-PDS’s automated technology. Plans are also afoot to extend the portable testing unit’s capabilities to detect other pathogens, such as Enterococcus. “In some situations, that’s a more useful indicator than E. coli,” says Brown. Their system is, says Wilton, “a platform technology. We’re continuously trying to expand what we test beyond water -- to milks, and other food products – and there is even potential to move beyond environmental testing in a clinical direction.” 

The company’s primary challenge is to remain focused. “We probably have almost too many opportunities at this point,” says Wilton.

“Most technology start-ups have only a single act,” says Wilton. “Very few make it to a successful conclusion. Our first act led to our acquisition by Veolia. Although considered a successful conclusion by many, this really was just the beginning of a second, and in many ways more challenging, act of expansion and commercialization. We are so very fortunate that we are now able to embark on a third act, to continue our mandate to revolutionize water monitoring, to continue to take this Queen’s University discovery to the entire world, and to continue as a Canadian company. 

“This third act is the most exciting so far.”