Centring in on green technologies

Centre for green technology

Rui Resendes, GreenCentre Canada executive director, says the new centre has received about $3 million in industry funding in addition to the $9.1 million it received in government funding.
Rui Resendes, GreenCentre Canada executive director, says the new centre has received about $3 million in industry funding in addition to the $9.1 million it received in government funding.

One of the hardest parts of progress is getting new technology out of the ivory tower and onto the street. Thanks to federal funding, Queen’s could become a key part in efforts to make small-scale lab research beneficial to the public at large.

The federal government announced last month that it would contribute $9.1 million to PARTEQ Innovations, Queen’s technology transfer office, for the establishment of GreenCentre Canada. The centre, scheduled to open in November 2009, will attempt to adapt green chemistry techniques from researchers for the needs of industry. Focusing on the transfer process of green technologies, it will also help researchers with technology development, intellectual property protection, business development, marketing and financial management.

The centre, which will be located in reformatted buildings in Innovation Park, is the first facility of its kind in North America.

Rui Resendes, director of commercial development in chemistry and materials at PARTEQ and executive director of the centre, said the field is in need of a change.

“The chemical industry needs to reinvent itself and become a green one,” he said.

Resendes said reinvention is often difficult given the intensive facilities and research necessary to convert experimental techniques into industrial ones. Most academics don’t have the time, the money or the equipment to turn their research into something suitable for industry, he said, and many companies can’t afford to spend substantial amounts of time and money on promising ideas that have only been proven on the small scale.

“We can’t meet that need with our current practices,” Resendes said. “It takes seven to 10 years to do that, to get something from ideas to the marketplace.”

Resendes said the basic principles of green chemistry are sound, a view shared by Queen’s alumnus Alfred Bader, who founded Aldrich Chemical Corporation in 1951.

“[Bader] said green chemistry is common-sense chemistry.”

Resendes said there aren’t enough projects or funds at any one Canadian university to make funding a transition facility viable.

Resendes and his team got around that problem by proposing a national centre that would work with interested Canadian researchers from a variety of institutions and companies, providing an economy of scale to make the facility viable.

“Because of that, it’s far easier to justify the expense,” he said.

The team started to work on the idea about a year ago, but the number of groups involved made it a slow process, Resendes said.

But he said there was tremendous support for the idea from academic, industry and government officials, many of whom have long recognized the problems associated with commercializing green technology.

“It came down to almost preaching to the choir,” he said.

The facility’s approach will be similar to PARTEQ’s more general approach to bringing researchers’ technologies to market, but it will be focused on green chemistry and will draw from national sources of ideas instead of just local ones. The plan is not to research new technologies at the centre, but to adapt existing techniques that have only been effective on a small scale to the needs of industry.

“The focus will not be on discovery. It will be on optimization,” Resendes said.

In addition to the government funding, the centre has received $3 million in industry funding so far. Resendes said those funds are intended to get the project off the ground; eventually, the centre should pay for itself by licensing successful technologies.

“Our goal is to become self

-sustaining in five years,” he said.

The centre has already lined up eight founding industry partners, Resendes said, with two more to come. These partners will contribute to the centre’s start-up costs and provide needed equipment and facilities for some of the large-scale research. In exchange, they’ll have the option to license technologies from the centre before outside companies are invited to do so.

“They get the first look at the technology as it rolls in,” Resendes said. “At any point from the day it walks in to the day it leaves, they have the first right to negotiate.”

Resendes said the centre is planning to work with a large number of projects in the first five years of operation, but he’s not expecting all of them to make it into industry.

“We’ll probably manage a total of 50 projects,” he said. “Of those 50, there are probably going to be 10 that are the real core technology.”

One of the centre’s key players is Queen’s chemistry professor Philip Jessop, who holds the Canada Research Chair in green chemistry and recently earned this year’s John C. Polanyi Award. Jessop will serve as technical director of the centre in addition to maintaining his teaching and research duties at Queen’s.

“He’s definitely one of the thought leaders in chemistry around the world,” Resendes said.

Jessop discovered switchable surfactants, molecules which allow oil and water to be mixed or separated by bubbling carbon dioxide or air through the blend.

Jessop said it’s a great time to launch the centre given the increase of interest in green chemistry in the last few years.

“Green chemistry has caught the imagination of young people,” he said. “People are more concerned about the environment now than they ever have been.”

Jessop said his first task will be selecting the 15 staff that will carry out research at the centre. An estimated 250 Ontario jobs in the chemical and materials sector will be created as a result of the centre’s activities over the next five years.

He said the centre will provide a vital service by linking academics and industry professionals, allowing more green research to find its way into chemical industry.

“There’s lots of intelligent academics making all sorts of great discoveries,” he said.

“Many of them, myself included, are not really great entrepreneurs. I’m just a professor playing with beakers in the lab.”

Many of those discoveries are never applied to the real world because researchers don’t have enough time to commercialize them, Jessop said.

“A lot of these things get patented, but never go beyond that.”

Jessop said industry alone can’t make up the distance between academics and industry, because many of the discoveries won’t pan out at the large-scale level, making it too costly to invest in these technologies.

“There’s too much risk, not in terms of safety risk, but in terms of financial risk,” he said. “What they need is for the process to be de-risked.”

Jessop said he thinks the new centre can help bridge the divide between research and commercial success.

“The pipeline has this big gap in it, and the centre’s all about filling that gap,” he said, adding that this is a new world for green chemists. Until now, professors had to start their own companies to get their research into industry.

“Discoveries that can help the green chemical industry don’t have to come from chemists,” he said, adding that the centre will be cross-disciplinary. “In terms of the kind of stuff I do, I need to collaborate with chemical engineers and mining engineers because there’s nobody in any field that can know everything. We need those people.”

Those cross-disciplinary projects may actually prove the most valuable for the environment, Jessop said.

“It’s not the fancy chemical processes like pharmaceuticals and fragrances that are causing the most waste,” he said. “It’s things like mining and energy production.”

He said the centre will transcend Queen’s boundaries and enable easier co-operation between academics and technology transfer offices at universities across the country and, he hopes, across North America in the future. Queen’s researchers won’t have any advantages over other researchers, even though the centre is run out of PARTEQ, which is associated with the University.

“Professors and transfer offices at other universities don’t need to be threatened by this at all,” he said. “This isn’t going to be a Queen’s thing; it’s going to be a national thing.”

Doug Stephan, a professor at the University of Toronto who was recently awarded a 2009 Killam Research Fellowship for his work on industrial catalysts, green catalysis and hydrogen storage techniques, said he was thrilled to see the federal government provide funding for the GreenCentre project.

“It’s a long-needed investment,” he said. “One of the big problems in academia is tech transfer. You can discover things in the lab but then getting them into practice is another business. The GreenCentre will facilitate a lot of the technologies that are being developed and allow them to move towards market. That’s the whole concept, so I think it’s great.”

Stephan said the investment comes at a crucial time.

“We have an opportunity here in Canada to become world leaders in developing new technologies,” he said. “That window is only open for so long before other people are going to jump in.”

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