October 16, 2017. ACUVA Technologies CEO Manoj Singh. Rob Newell photo.
Original article from The National Post
More than just an institution of higher learning, the University of British Columbia empowers its students and faculty in ground breaking research that endeavours to make an impact on real world issues. In part 1 of a series, we look at innovative companies that were born at UBC.
Imagine a small device so efficient that it could clear drinking water of pathogens instantly using a small, solid-state ultraviolet (UV) LED powered by just 12 volts.
Manoj Singh isn’t just imagining such a device — as CEO of Acuva, he’s manufacturing them by leveraging technology developed at UBC.
Singh earned an MBA in strategic management at UBC in 2010. He took on corporate assignments in both India and Canada, but was soon bitten by the entrepreneurship bug. In 2013, he reached out to UBC’s University-Industry Liaison Office (UILO). The office helps forge partnerships for the university by linking breakthrough research and technology with industry, entrepreneurs, government and non-profit organizations through licensing agreements.
“I reviewed many technologies, but liked the commercial possibilities of the water-purification technology and was impressed by its potential social impact,” says Singh. “I could see myself making a positive impact on millions of people’s lives. UBC also wanted to know that I was the person who could take this technology to its fullest commercial potential.”
His confidence in the potential of the technology grew further after meeting with Dr. Fariborz Taghipour, a professor at UBC’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, who developed the technology. Acuva was born soon after in 2014.
UV light is already one of the most effective methods of removing pathogens from water. Its downside? The current state of the technology is not easily scaled down for household use. UV lamps are expensive and create a negative environmental impact following disposal. UV treatment plants require enormous energy to operate and the lamps must remain on throughout the entire treatment cycle. The larger treatment plants also require significant maintenance, in part to remove mineral scale from the UV lamps.
The genius behind Acuva is the use of much more efficient UV LEDs, which require far less energy and little maintenance to provide the same water-purification benefits.
“With technological improvements, UV radiation produced by the LEDs is becoming much more powerful for the purposes of disinfection,” says Singh. “If you installed an Acuva purifier under a sink, you could open the faucet and purify water in real time with regular flow as it passes through the pipes. The unit only needs to be turned on when you want drinking water.”
Acuva is currently focusing on early adopters in markets identified by UBC experts: boat owners, recreational-vehicle owners and cottagers in North America.
“These are flow-through units that need to be connected to a water supply,” says Singh. “If you were boating on a fresh-water lake, you could make clean, safe and palatable drinking water from the lake with the Acuva unit.”
The price of the product is already dropping. Units are selling for as little as 30 per cent of the price offered last year.
“We’re expecting tremendous price reductions over the near term,” says Singh. “The journey through early markets has taken us from concept to product and significant improvements in economy of scale. We hope to see this phase attracting global industry partners.”
Next stop: emerging markets such as households in India that already use expensive devices to purify water supplied by utilities. “Where grid electricity is unreliable, the units need only be turned on when water is needed,” Singh explains.
Singh envisions further economies of scale soon, making lower-cost units available in remote communities. These could even be powered by small photovoltaic cells in off-grid locations.
While the technology drove the company, UBC was essential to its success, says Singh. He consulted with a team of six entrepreneurs in residence who provided hands-on business coaching. Singh also had access to a UBC network of more than 130 industry mentors who help companies like his take ideas through value proposition and into the marketplace.
Acuva was offered two offices on the UBC campus, one for testing and assembly of products and the other a management office. The company currently employs 13 people. Two thirds of them have associations with UBC.
“Acuva is a great example of a company that took advantage of everything UBC offers to assist new ventures,” says Gail Murphy, UBC’s vice-president, research and innovation. “Over the past 10 years, we’ve really seen a shift, where more of our faculty, students and staff are thinking about taking scientific and technological breakthroughs to a point where they make an impact on the world.”
Decades ago, UBC was one of the first universities to establish a UILO. She notes that UBC’s Lean Launch Pad Accelerator Programs have also assisted in the development of 136 ventures over the past three years.
“It’s really important for UBC to provide the support mechanisms to help entrepreneurs in new ventures,” she says.
Singh notes that Acuva isn’t simply a one-trick pony.
“We’re not just a water-purification company,” he says. “We’re a UBC-inspired technology company that knows how to kill pathogens. We’ll continue to partner with UBC to develop new markets for this technology to clean water, air and even medical devices.”
5 innovative companies that were born at UBC
Westport Fuel Systems
Westport was founded on technology invented by the late professor Dr. Phil Hill at UBC in the 1980s. “Dr. Hill’s breakthrough high-pressure direct injection (HPDI) of natural gas into the combustion chamber enabled diesel engines to run on clean-burning natural gas, while retaining all of the efficiency and performance of diesel technology,” says Brad Douville, Westport’s vice-president business development.
The company was launched in 1996 at UBC and the engines tested on campus were first demonstrated in transit buses in California. The path to commercialization involved partnerships with diesel-engine manufacturers, beginning with a joint venture with Cummins in 2001. Today, the next generation of HPDI technology, Westport HPDI 2.0 is an integral part of the full spectrum of measures that the commercial transportation sector will need to reduce green house gas emissions and offers global manufacturers a vertically integrated natural-gas solution with attractive price, performance and fuel economy. “We embarked on a mission to make the world a better, cleaner place,” says Douville. “I believe we’ve helped achieved that.”
Anomotion Interactive Inc.
Anomotion Interactive Inc. offers an AI-based natural-motion technology that assists game and virtual-reality studios to create compelling cinematic and character-driven experiences. Anomotion’s software provides a motion library and then allows developers to fine-tune and personalize their creations to render characters capable of believable high-fidelity motion. Anomotion CEO Shailen Agrawal graduated with a PhD in computer science from UBC in 2016. His doctoral thesis developed part of the technology behind the company, which launched last year. He says he took full advantage of UBC mentorship and business accelerators to develop the company. Since the company’s inception, Anomotion has already worked with clients including Gunfire Games, Big Red Button and Pure Imagination. “For me, the most fulfilling part of the business is playing a game with a character developed through Anomotion software,” Agrawal says. “When your character moves like a superhero, you feel like one too and that creates an emotional connection.”
Boreal Genomics develops breakthrough technology for non-invasive, real-time detection and monitoring of tumour mutations, to allow physicians to prescribe therapeutics targeted to a patient’s specific form of cancer. The company was born of research in electrophoresis by UBC professors Dr. Andre Marziali and Lorne Whitehead. “It started from an idea of Lorne’s using electric fields to move molecules in a gel,” says Marziali. The technology was commercialized as a method to remove contaminants from DNA found at crime scenes. “Now we’re in oncology with a product called OnTarget,” he says. “We look at DNA that might be linked to tumours in a patient’s blood for early detection and tumour-monitoring applications. We place synthesized DNA strands matching cancer mutations in a gel and amplify binding with strands of the patient’s own DNA. By effectively identifying potential cancer in the patient, it solves a needle-in-a-haystack problem.”
The hypodermic needle represents a technology that was brilliant — in 1844. Enter Microdermics and its new microneedles measuring between 0.3 and 1.0 millimetres in length. Hypodermics inject drugs into the muscle. Microdermics delivers drugs into the skin, above the pain receptors, which is a more efficient method of drug transportation.
UBC| Microdermics 2:37
“A large percentage of the population has needle phobia,” says Grant Campany, CEO of Microdermics. “Using our microneedles, they wouldn’t even feel an injection.” Microdermics also uses drugs more sparingly. Flu, polio or rabies vaccines can be delivered using five to 10 per cent of the traditional dose and offering the same level of protection. Microdermics’ microneedle technology was developed at UBC and the business was launched at HATCH, a UBC technology incubator. Campany foresees patients accurately administering their own vaccines and even taking blood samples from their own capillaries for analysis. “We’ve bypassed the technology bottlenecks,” he says.
Cambridge Energy Partners
The problem with using solar-energy systems at remote mining sites is that there is a high risk of the solar equipment becoming stranded when operations shut down.
Enter Cambridge Energy Partners (CEP), a company offering affordable, factory-assembled solar-energy systems that can be delivered to remote sites in shipping containers. Better still, they’re easily operated, track the sun automatically and can later be removed and redeployed. UBC alumnus Trevor Bruce, principal at CEP, launched the business at the University of Cambridge, but returned to UBC two years ago to take advantage of business accelerators and mining-industry expertise to further develop the company. Its first unit has been shipped to Spain. “We’re the IKEA of the solar industry,” he says. “Our first goal is to serve commercial and industrial applications at remote sites in Africa and Latin America and prove to them that solar energy is accessible and affordable.”
This story was created by Content Works, Postmedia’s commercial content division, on behalf of UBC.