Cold Plasma Group participates in programs offered by Queen’s Partnerships and Innovation (QPI), made possible with support from the Government of Canada to Queen’s University through the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario and the Scale-Up Platform Project and the WE-CAN Project.
Consider two photographs, taken by microscope early in October 2020 in the labs of Loyalist College’s Applied Research Centre for Natural Products and Medical Cannabis (ARC). Each shows a close-up of cannabis magnified 25 times. The eye moves from one to the other; there is no apparent difference.
Which, as odd as it may seem, was precisely what Florina Truica and David Johnson, respectively the chief technology officer and president of Cold Plasma Group, hoped they would show. One picture features cannabis before it has been sterilized using a device featuring the company’s cold plasma technology; the other shows it afterwards. Not only was it identical in appearance, ARC’s analysis of the treated cannabis showed that their process left it unchanged in terms of its cannabinoids, the drug’s active ingredients, and terpenes, the aromatic compounds that give it much of its distinctive aroma. All while destroying up to 99.99 per cent of the yeast, mould and bacteria on its surface.
A 2005 PhD in engineering physics from the École Polytechnique de Montréal who specialized in applications for plasma and radiation, Truica worked as a scientist and researcher for three Kingston-based companies, Novelis, Alcereco, and Grafoid. A friend of hers worked as the chief science officer at a medical marijuana operation. “He told us about the problems they consistently have with microbial contamination of cannabis.” He was looking for new ideas. She suggested cold plasma. She created the company, and to help her, enlisted David Johnson, a fellow former employee of Alcereco and Grafoid with extensive experience in bringing new processes to market. They incorporated Cold Plasma Group in early 2019.
The Canadian government requires that all cannabis sold legally be nearly devoid of microbes, which can generally be achieved only through sterilization. But the nature of cannabis itself makes this difficult – it is extremely sensitive to heat and to radiation (currently gamma radiation is frequently used to sterilize it). Because of this, sterilizing the plant means running the risk of damaging its properties.
Enter plasma. A gas containing equal numbers of ions and electrons, but also photons, radicals, and so forth, plasmas are created by energizing gases, such as air or nitrogen, to the point of freeing electrons from the gases’ atoms or molecules through a process called ionization. Science tells us 99% of all matter in the Universe is in a state of “plasma” with lightning being one example of a naturally-occurring plasma. Plasmas can be very hot; cold plasmas, however, as the name suggests, are not. In their case, only a small amount of energy is transferred into the gas; just enough to free electrons, but not enough to “hot-up” the bulk of the gas. This makes cold plasma useful as a sterilizer: the free radicals, charged particles and ultra violet radiation in the plasma destroy bacteria by attacking their cell membranes, but because the plasma is cold, it doesn’t damage the cannabis itself. It seemed an ideal solution to the challenge.
Before she created Cold Plasma, Truica had developed a relationship with Queen’s Partnerships and Innovations (QPI) when she worked at Novelis. Both were located in Kingston’s Innovation Park. “As a technical leader and manager on several projects, I worked with them and they helped me find collaborators,” she says. She also worked with them on Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council-funded projects when she was at Alcereco and Grafoid. When she decided to establish her own company, “I just approached them and asked how I could join their programs.” Signing on to the Canada Accelerator and Incubator Program (CAIP) in late 2017, she transitioned into the Queen’s Startup Runway program for pre-revenue startups, when the funding for CAIP ended. “This was the perfect opportunity for my company”, she says of this new program, which is offered as part of the Scale-Up Platform Project aimed at building a pipeline of tech firms poised to grow. The program provides access to numerous programs and services offered by QPI, Launch Lab and St. Lawrence College. Truica also participates in QPI’s WE-CAN (Women Entrepreneurs Can) programs – she recently completed Compass North, an accelerator program aimed at women entrepreneurs working in science and high-tech, and is currently receiving support from QPI’s patent team, as well as QPI’s High Impact Mentorship program.
Significantly, it was through this latter program that Truica and Johnson connected with Peter Becke, a successful entrepreneur who is a part-time member of the QPI team, advising a small number of early-stage companies on how to attract investment and prepare to grow. “Our company is out-of-the-norm,” says Truica. “We can’t get revenue until we get to market, but to get to market we need substantial funding. Peter’s been great on advising us on how to present ourselves, helping us refine our business model, and getting us in touch with the right people.”
Getting to market meant getting their idea past the initial proof of concept stage, which they had achieved in 2019, using research-grade plasma equipment. That they felt was not enough. “We wanted to have a device that would be in essence very easy to use for anybody, a machine which doesn’t require a degree in plasma physics to operate it,” says Truica. What any potential customers would see would be very like what they themselves would be using to sterilize their cannabis. It was the performance of this device, “an actual portable industrial unit,” Truica emphasizes, built in Germany and installed in their labs, that ARC validated in October.
For the near future, says Johnson, “We’re busy hunting down financing. And we’re looking at who is going to buy this equipment, so we’ve been talking to licensed producers [all medical cannabis producers are licensed by Health Canada]. And while they may have started with cannabis, that is not the only potential application for their plasma technology and equipment. As an example, they cite sterilizing the sort of personal protective equipment used during the current COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s the same sort of problem,” says Johnson, “a mask is a piece of complicated organic material. How do you destroy the pathogens without destroying the properties of the mask itself?”
Definitely a puzzle, but one which – if the photos are any evidence – they have already solved once.