BC Innovation Council Ignite program helps move B.C. research from lab to market

The BC Innovation Council’s grant provides funding to accelerate the commercialization of new technologies and innovations in British Columbia’s natural resources and applied sciences sectors

For all intents and purposes, Axine Water Technologies is the poster child for the modern startup. 

In just over five years, the Vancouver-based tech company has grown from a single-person enterprise to a burgeoning team of 25. And like most successful startups, it has based its meteoric rise on the development of one key product: an advanced technological system  that’s revolutionizing industrial waste-water treatment.

“Thousands of manufacturing plants in the U.S. and around the world truck their toxic waste water off site to get injected into a deep well, burned or put in a landfill, which is expensive and dangerous for the environment,” says Jonathan Rhone, the company’s president and CEO. “In response to that, our engineers have spent years developing a system that can treat some of the most challenging waste water produced by industry on site and in a cheaper and more effective way than ever before.”

Today, Axine’s revolutionary waste-water treatment technology is ready to be commercialized. The company recently sold its first treatment system to a multinational electronics manufacturer in San Jose, California, and is currently in the process of closing deals with a number of other large manufacturers across North America.

These new developments have filled Rhone with a sense of hope and excitement.

“This is not just a dream anymore,” he says. “We’re now heading towards our goal of becoming one of the most successful clean-tech companies in the world.”

Fuelling new innovations

Although Axine’s current technology is fully functional, Rhone is well aware that if the company is to establish itself as the global standard for waste-water treatment, it must continue innovating.

That’s why earlier this year, Rhone and his team decided to partner with researchers from the University of Victoria to explore and develop new technologies for waste-water treatment.

As part of the funding for their research, the partners applied for an Ignite Award, a grant that had recently been created by the BC Innovation Council (BCIC). The Ignite program was a perfect fit for the project, because it helps fund partnerships between academic organizations and private companies to accelerate the commercialization of new technologies for B.C.’s booming natural resource and applied sciences sectors.

The program provides funding opportunities that allow researchers and companies to focus their innovation, research and problem solving on market-driven challenges,” says Kailyn Skuban, who manages the Ignite program at BC Innovation Council. Since the program began in 2016, it has awarded 1.7 million in BC Innovation Council funds. In total, with leveraged funds, the program has contributed more than 5 million towards Ignite projects.

“One of the requirements of the program is that recipients of the funding need to have matching funds leveraged in order to receive the awards. It’s a two-to-one match, which means that if a project is awarded $300,000, they’ll be getting another $600,000 research dollars,” says Skuban. “When you add the leveraged funds and the funding from BC Innovation Council, it’s quite a significant amount of funding for this space.”

The importance of fostering partnerships

Jetti Resources is another company that has benefited from Ignite Award grants.

Earlier this year, a project put forward by the company in conjunction with researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) received $300,000 to continue developing and testing a new technology aimed at improving the extraction of copper.

“Because of the nature of the current technology, very low-grade copper cannot be processed,” says Nelson Mora, vice-president of engineering and technology at Jetti. “The company went on a quest looking for technologies that would solve that problem, and we came to this new technology being developed at the University of British Columbia, which seemed very promising.”

The Ignite Award has given Jetti the resources to successfully test this technology, putting the company in a position to start approaching industry partners with tangible results.

“It’s a great program,” says Mora. “We used the funds to help us develop and test our technology, as well as to hire a young engineer from the research team, helping to keep her know-how in the company, and keep that know-how in the province as well.”

Investing in the future of B.C.

Supporting a new generation of researchers is one of the biggest benefits of the Ignite program, according to Jonathan Holzman, a researcher at UBC who received the Ignite Award in 2016.

“As a professor, I see a huge benefit in getting graduate and postgraduate students involved in applied research,” says Holzman. “It’s not only great experience to put on their resumé, but it also gives them the opportunity to work with industry leaders, providing a great opportunity for them to learn and to launch their careers.”

Today, Holzman’s team continues to work with ExcelSense Technologies Corp., a Vancouver-based company that’s creating specialized camera systems for the resource sector.

“ExcelSense created this very successful self-cleaning technology that can have cameras work in environments where they are subject to things like extreme vibration, or where they can get covered in oil, sawdust and various other contaminants, but their big challenge was knowing when the conditions were appropriate to activate the self-cleaning systems,” Holzman explains.

“That’s why they asked us to help develop sensor technology that can be integrated into the camera to be able to test how contaminated it is and when it needs to trigger self-cleaning. My students and I helped develop those sensors thanks to the Ignite grant.”

BC Innovation Council’s Skuban is convinced that these partnerships will help create an environment that fosters innovation, while supporting young talent and creating tangible results in the industry.

“The program is helping catalyze those industry-academic relationships and really move that research from bench-side into the commercial market,” she says. “And more importantly, the projects we’re funding are creating things that are actually going to change our world.”