Originally published: October 25, 2017
As originally published by the Queen's University Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science. Feature photo credit: Diana Zhao, QICSI Summer Intern.
It’s been a huge few months for Queen’s students Yusuf Ahmed, Malcolm Eade, Christian Baldwin, Tyler Whitney, and Ryan Picard. They all earned spots in the much sought-after 2017 Dunin-Deshpande Queen’s Innovation Centre Summer Initiative (QICSI) program. Together they formed a team called Spectra Plasmonics, spent the summer developing a business plan for a novel sensing technology, incorporated their company as Spectra Plasmonics, earned $15,000 in the QICSI Pitch Competition in August, and then earned the grand prize in the Lee Kuan Yew Global Business Plan Competition in Singapore.
The competition in Singapore was especially fierce, with 36 elite teams representing prestigious universities across the world. That win comes with $125,000 in prize money, $100,000 in venture cap funding, and thousands of dollars in valuable support services. In just a few months, the Spectra Plasmonics team has progressed from cold start to going concern.
“We’re really proud of the team and the researchers, anyone who helped honestly,” says Baldwin. “We’re really happy and see a real possibility of becoming a successful company. We just want to work even harder now.”
It often takes years for researchers and entrepreneurs to get a new technology to market. So, how does it happen? How does a small group of bright Queen’s students manage to get so far in such a short period of time?
“You can’t really find opportunities like QICSI easily,” says Ahmed. “This is crazy, how quickly we’ve been able to move, and this is all thanks to the QICSI team and what they’ve been able to support us with – the resources, the advice, the funding – everything counts, and that’s why we’ve been able to get to where we are at this point.”
And of course there’s the technology. It’s a bit difficult to describe concisely but it goes something like this: Say you want to detect tiny amounts of a particular molecule in a sample. This could be useful for anyone who wants to confirm or discount the presence of bacteria, viruses, explosives, drugs, environmental contaminants, any molecule, in any fluid sample.
Traditionally these kinds of tasks are carried out at professional laboratories on hugely expensive and specialized equipment by highly trained technicians. They are expensive and time consuming. There is, however, a method called surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS) that allows us to identify molecules present in trace quantities by interrogating a sample with a laser beam. SERS has been known for decades but the materials and processes needed to use it have typically been prohibitively expensive, difficult to manufacture, and hard to reproduce.
That’s where Queen’s chemical engineering researchers come in.
“We’ve developed a new method – a particularly efficient, quick, and cost-effective method – for building substrates for SERS,” says Queen’s MD/PhD candidate Hannah Dies. “We build little microchips in the lab with an AC electric circuit on them that can connect to an external power source. We can actually build intricate nano-structures that are very sensitive for SERS detection.”
Dies developed the process with Queen’s chemical engineering professors Aris Docoslis and Carlos Escobedo, and with the help of PhD candidate Joshua Raveendran. It opens the door to the development of relatively inexpensive portable devices that can be used to conduct very precise tests, quickly, and without the need for more expensive and complex laboratory facilities and highly trained personnel.
“We wanted to protect the intellectual property, so we got in touch with Ramzi Asfour at the Office of Partnerships and Innovation at Queen’s,” says Dies. “Ramzi then pitched the idea to the QICSI program. From there, the students formed their team based on their mutual interest.”
“What Yusuf, Malcolm, Christian, Tyler, and Ryan do for us is they present this work to the world as a marketable product, something that we wouldn’t be able to do because it’s outside our areas of expertise,” says Docoslis. “We liked them as a team when they started back in May and it proved to be a perfect match. They pretty much searched heaven and earth to find potential early adopters of the technology and they amazed all of us with their energy and activity.”
And collaborations like this one just might be the best advantage of the QICSI program. For QICSI participants, it’s the chance to build a business plan on the foundation of some of the amazing research happening every day at Queen’s. For researchers, it’s a chance to see more of their work transformed into viable commercial products. For Queen’s, it’s a chance to demonstrate that the research work and programs here aren’t merely competitive but also leading in the academic and commercial arenas. It’s a win for every stakeholder.
So what are the next steps for Spectra Plasmonics?
“We know where we need to be and what we need to look forward to,” says Eade. “We have a number of organizations that have expressed interest in working with us. Now it’s getting this product into the hands of users, refining it, and making the best possible product to launch.”
As for the QICSI experience, all on the Spectra Plasmonics crew seem unanimous.
“In terms of one thing you could do at Queen’s to develop your character, develop your skills, and change you as an overall person, QICSI is by far the thing to do,” says Eade. “There aren’t many programs out there that will pay you to start a company, that will pair you up with world-class advisors and alumni in the Queen’s network, and will give you this kind of access to opportunity. It’s kind of overwhelming. I would say, absolutely, if you have the opportunity to do it, do it.”
Link: A short video from earlier in the summer featuring Ahmed and Picard before Spectra Plasmonics' big win; produced by the Queen's University Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science.