Tag Archives: SWITCH Materials

#BCTECH: being at the Summit (Jan. 18-19, 2016)

#BCTECH Summit 2016*, a joint event between the province of British Columbia (BC, Canada) and the BC Innovation Council (BCIC), a crown corporation formerly known as the Science Council of British Columbia, launched on Jan. 18, 2016. I have written a preview (Jan. 17, 2016 post) and a commentary on the new #BCTECH strategy (Jan. 19, 2016 posting) announced by British Columbia Premier, Christy Clark, on the opening day (Jan. 18, 2016) of the summit.

I was primarily interested in the trade show/research row/technology showcase aspect of the summit focusing (but not exclusively) on nanotechnology. Here’s what I found,

Nano at the Summit

  • Precision NanoSystems: fabricates equipment which allows researchers to create polymer nanoparticles for delivering medications.

One of the major problems with creating nanoparticles is ensuring a consistent size and rapid production. According to Shell Ip, a Precision NanoSystems field application scientist, their NanoAssemblr Platform has solved the consistency problem and a single microfluidic cartridge can produce 15 ml in two minutes. Cartridges can run in parallel for maximum efficiency when producing nanoparticles in greater quantity.

The NanoAssemblr Platform is in use in laboratories around the world (I think the number is 70) and you can find out more on the company’s About our technology webpage,

The NanoAssemblr™ Platform

The microfluidic approach to particle formulation is at the heart of the NanoAssemblr Platform. This well-controlled process mediates bottom-up self-assembly of nanoparticles with reproducible sizes and low polydispersity. Users can control size by process and composition, and adjust parameters such as mixing ratios, flow rate and lipid composition in order to fine-tune nanoparticle size, encapsulation efficiency and much more. The system technology enables manufacturing scale-up through microfluidic reactor parallelization similar to the arraying of transistors on an integrated chip. Superior design ensures that the platform is fast and easy to use with a software controlled manufacturing process. This usability allows for the simplified transfer of manufacturing protocols between sites, which accelerates development, reduces waste and ultimately saves money. Precision NanoSystems’ flagship product is the NanoAssemblr™ Benchtop Instrument, designed for rapid prototyping of novel nanoparticles. Preparation time on the system is streamlined to approximately one minute, with the ability to complete 30 formulations per day in the hands of any user.

The company is located on property known as the Endowment Lands or, more familiarly, the University of British Columbia (UBC).

A few comments before moving on, being able to standardize the production of medicine-bearing nanoparticles is a tremendous step forward which is going to help scientists dealing with other issues. Despite all the talk in the media about delivering nanoparticles with medication directly to diseased cells, there are transport issues: (1) getting the medicine to the right location/organ and (2) getting the medicine into the cell. My Jan. 12, 2016 posting featured a project with Malaysian scientists and a team at Harvard University who are tackling the transport and other nanomedicine) issues as they relate to the lung. As well, I have a Nov. 26, 2015 posting which explores a controversy about nanoparticles getting past the ‘cell walls’ into the nucleus of the cell.

The next ‘nano’ booths were,

  • 4D Labs located at Simon Fraser University (SFU) was initially hailed as a nanotechnology facility but these days they’re touting themselves as an ‘advanced materials’ facility. Same thing, different branding.

They advertise services including hands-on training for technology companies and academics. There is a nanoimaging facility and nanofabrication facility, amongst others.

I spoke with their operations manager, Nathaniel Sieb who mentioned a few of the local companies that use their facilities. (1) Nanotech Security (featured here most recently in a Dec. 29, 2015 post), an SFU spinoff company, does some of their anticounterfeiting research work at 4D Labs. (2) Switch Materials (a smart window company, electrochromic windows if memory serves) also uses the facilities. It is Neil Branda’s (4D Labs Executive Director) company and I have been waiting impatiently (my May 14, 2010 post was my first one about Switch) for either his or someone else’s electrochromic windows (they could eliminate or reduce the need for air conditioning during the hotter periods and reduce the need for heat in the colder periods) to come to market. Seib tells me, I’ll have to wait longer for Switch. (3) A graduate student was presenting his work at the booth, a handheld diagnostic device that can be attached to a smartphone to transmit data to the cloud. While the first application is for diabetics, there are many other possibilities. Unfortunately, glucose means you need to produce blood for the test when I suggested my preference for saliva the student explained some of the difficulties. Apparently, your saliva changes dynamically and frequently and something as simple as taking a sip of orange juice could result in a false reading. Our conversation (mine, Seib’s and the student’s) also drifted over into the difficulties of bringing products to market. Sadly, we were not able to solve that problem in our 10 minute conversation.

  • FPInnovations is a scientific research centre and network for the forestry sector. They had a display near their booth which was like walking into a peculiar forest (I was charmed). The contrast with the less imaginative approaches all around was striking.

FPInnovation helped to develop cellulose nanocrystals (CNC), then called nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC), and I was hoping to be updated about CNC and about the spinoff company Celluforce. The researcher I spoke to was from Sweden and his specialty was business development. He didn’t know much about CNC in Canada and when I commented on how active Sweden has been its pursuit of a CNC application, he noted Finland has been the most active. The researcher noted that making the new materials being derived from the forest, such as CNC, affordable and easily produced for use in applications that have yet to be developed are all necessities and challenges. He mentioned that cultural changes also need to take place. Canadians are accustomed to slicing away and discarding most of the tree instead of using as much of it as possible. We also need to move beyond the construction and pulp & paper sectors (my Feb. 15, 2012 posting featured nanocellulose research in Sweden where sludge was the base material).

Other interests at the Summit

I visited:

  • “The Wearable Lower Limb Anthropomorphic Exoskeleton (WLLAE) – a lightweight, battery-operated and ergonomic robotic system to help those with mobility issues improve their lives. The exoskeleton features joints and links that correspond to those of a human body and sync with motion. SFU has designed, manufactured and tested a proof-of-concept prototype and the current version can mimic all the motions of hip joints.” The researchers (Siamak Arzanpour and Edward Park) pointed out that the ability to mimic all the motions of the hip is a big difference between their system and others which only allow the leg to move forward or back. They rushed the last couple of months to get this system ready for the Summit. In fact, they received their patent for the system the night before (Jan. 17, 2016) the Summit opened.

It’s the least imposing of the exoskeletons I’ve seen (there’s a description of one of the first successful exoskeletons in a May 20, 2014 posting; if you scroll down to the end you’ll see an update about the device’s unveiling at the 2014 World Cup [soccer/football] in Brazil).

Unfortunately, there aren’t any pictures of WLLAE yet and the proof-of-concept version may differ significantly from the final version. This system could be used to help people regain movement (paralysis/frail seniors) and I believe there’s a possibility it could be used to enhance human performance (soldiers/athletes). The researchers still have some significant hoops to jump before getting to the human clinical trial stage. They need to refine their apparatus, ensure that it can be safely operated, and further develop the interface between human and machine. I believe WLLAE is considered a neuroprosthetic device. While it’s not a fake leg or arm, it enables movement (prosthetic) and it operates on brain waves (neuro). It’s a very exciting area of research, consequently, there’s a lot of international competition.

  • Delightfully, after losing contact for a while, I reestablished it with the folks (Sean Lee, Head External Relations and Jim Hanlon, Chief Administrative Officer) at TRIUMF (Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics). It’s a consortium of 19 Canadian research institutions (12 full members and seven associate members).

It’s a little disappointing that TRIUMF wasn’t featured in the opening for the Summit since the institution houses theoretical, experimental, and applied science work. It’s a major BC (and Canada) science and technology success story. My latest post (July 16, 2015) about their work featured researchers from California (US) using the TRIUMF cyclotron for imaging nanoscale materials and, on the more practical side, there’s a Mar. 6, 2015 posting about their breakthrough for producing nuclear material-free medical isotopes. Plus, Maclean’s Magazine ran a Jan. 3, 2016 article by Kate Lunau profiling an ‘art/science’ project that took place at TRIUMF (Note: Links have been removed),

It’s not every day that most people get to peek inside a world-class particle physics lab, where scientists probe deep mysteries of the universe. In September [2015], Vancouver’s TRIUMF—home to the world’s biggest cyclotron, a type of particle accelerator—opened its doors to professional and amateur photographers, part of an event called Global Physics Photowalk 2015. (Eight labs around the world participated, including CERN [European particle physics laboratory], in Geneva, where the Higgs boson particle was famously discovered.)

Here’s the local (Vancouver) jury’s pick for the winning image (from the Nov. 4, 2015 posting [Winning Photographs Revealed] by Alexis Fong on the TRIUMF website),

Caption: DESCANT (at TRIUMF) neutron detector array composed of 70 hexagonal detectors Credit: Pamela Joe McFarlane

Caption: DESCANT (at TRIUMF) neutron detector array composed of 70 hexagonal detectors Credit: Pamela Joe McFarlane

With all those hexagons and a spherical shape, the DESCANT looks like a ‘buckyball’ or buckminsterfullerene or C60  to me.

I hope the next Summit features TRIUMF and/or some other endeavours which exemplify, Science, Technology, and Creativity in British Columbia and Canada.

Onto the last booth,

  • MITACS was originally one of the Canadian federal government’s Network Centres for Excellence projects. It was focused on mathematics, networking, and innovation but once the money ran out the organization took a turn. These days, it’s describing itself as (from their About page) “a national, not-for-profit organization that has designed and delivered research and training programs in Canada for 15 years. Working with 60 universities, thousands of companies, and both federal and provincial governments, we build partnerships that support industrial and social innovation in Canada.”Their Jan. 19, 2016 news release (coincidental with the #BCTECH Summit, Jan. 18 – 19, 2016?) features a new report about improving international investment in Canada,

    Opportunities to improve Canada’s attractiveness for R&D investment were identified:

    1.Canada needs to better incentivize R&D by rebalancing direct and indirect support measures

    2.Canada requires a coordinated, client-centric approach to incentivizing R&D

    3.Canada needs to invest in training programs that grow the knowledge economy”

    Oddly, entrepreneurial/corporate/business types never have a problem with government spending when the money is coming to them; it’s only a problem when it’s social services.

    Back to MITACS, one of their more interesting (to me) projects was announced at the 2015 Canadian Science Policy Conference. MITACS has inaugurated a Canadian Science Policy Fellowships programme which in its first year (pilot) will see up up to 10 academics applying their expertise to policy-making while embedded in various federal government agencies. I don’t believe anything similar has occurred here in Canada although, if memory serves, the Brits have a similar programme.

    Finally, I offer kudos to Sherry Zhao, MITACS Business Development Specialist, the only person to ask me how her organization might benefit my business. Admittedly I didn’t talk to a lot of people but it’s striking to me that at an ‘innovation and business’ tech summit, only one person approached me about doing business.  Of course, I’m not a male aged between 25 and 55. So, extra kudos to Sherry Zhao and MITACS.

Christy Clark (Premier of British Columbia), in her opening comments, stated 2800 (they were expecting about 1000) had signed up for the #BCTECH Summit. I haven’t been able to verify that number or get other additional information, e.g., business deals, research breakthroughs, etc. announced at the Summit. Regardless, it was exciting to attend and find out about the latest and greatest on the BC scene.

I wish all the participants great and good luck and look forward to next year’s where perhaps we’ll here about how the province plans to help with the ‘manufacturing middle’ issue. For new products you need to have facilities capable of reproducing your devices at a speed that satisfies your customers; see my Feb. 10, 2014 post featuring a report on this and other similar issues from the US General Accountability Office.

*’BCTECH Summit 2016′ link added Jan. 21, 2016.

Nanotechnology is an enabling technology not an industry sector

Over the years I’ve heard people point out that nanotechnology isn’t really a technology in the traditional sense. It is instead a means of describing applied science performed at the molecular level.  In short, chemistry, physics, engineering, and biology at the molecular level.

An Oct. 9, 2015 article by Kevin Kelleher for Time magazine points that fact out in detail focusing largely on the business end of things (Note: Links have been removed),

Of all the investment fads and manias over the past few decades, none have been as big of a fizzle as the craze for nanotech stocks. Ten years ago, venture capitalists were scrambling for investments, startups with “nano” in their names flourished and even a few nanotech funds launched hoping to track a rising industry.

Back in 2005, the year when nanotech mania peaked, a gold rush mentality took hold. There were 1,200 nanotech startups worldwide, half of them in the U.S. VCs invested more than $1 billion in nanotech in the first half of the decade. Draper Fisher Jurvetson had nearly a fifth of its portfolio in the nanotech sector, and Steve Jurvetson proclaimed it “the next great technology wave.”

Ten years on, precious few of the nanotech stocks and venture-backed startups have delivered on their investment promise. Harris & Harris and Arrowhead are both trading at less than a tenth of their respective peaks of the last decade. Invesco liquidated its PowerShares Lux Nanotech ETF in 2014, after it underperformed the S&P 500 for seven of the previous eight years.

And many of the surviving companies that touted their nanotech credentials or put “nano” in their names now describe themselves as materials companies, or semiconductor companies, or – like Arrowhead – biopharma companies, if they haven’t changed their names entirely.

The rebranding process has been an interesting one to observe. I had Neil Branda  (professor at Simon Fraser University [Vancouver, Canada] and executive director of their 4D Labs) explain to me last year (2014) that nanotechnology was a passé term, it is now all about advanced materials.

They’re right and they’re wrong. I think rebranding companies is possible and a good idea. Locally, Pangaea Ventures is now an Advanced Materials venture capitalism company. Coincidentally, Neil Branda’s startup (scroll down about 15% of the way), Switch Materials, is in their portfolio.

However, the term nanotechnology is some 40 years old and represents an enormous social capital investment. While it’s possible it will disappear that won’t be happening for a long, long time.

Goodish article for beginners—Pangaea Ventures on the state of nanotechnology

Purnesh Seegopaul, General Partner, Pangaea Ventures Ltd., headquartered in Vancouver, Canada, has written a Jan. 21, 2013 posting, The State of Nanotechnology, for the company blog, which offers a good primer on nanotechnology along with a bit of a sales pitch,

Nanomaterials are of particular interest and at Pangaea Ventures, our focused approach on advanced materials gives us an exceptional grasp of leading-edge innovations and emerging companies developing and commercializing nano-enabled products. Engineered nanomaterial building blocks include inorganic nanoparticles, nanofibers, nanowires, quantum dots, nanotubes, nanoporous materials, dendrimers, plasmons, metamaterials, superlattices, metal organic frameworks, clays, nanocomposites, and the carbon-based nanotubes, graphene, fibers, fullerenes, and activated materials. These nanostructures are incorporated in bulk forms, coatings, films, inks, and devices. Graphene, the latest addition to the nanotech toolkit not only garnered the 2010 Nobel Prize (Geim and Nuvoselov [sic]) but also projected to extend Moore’s law in nanoelectronics. Nanobiomedical applications would allow targeted drug delivery in cancer treatment. Of course, nano-enabled products are expected to be competitive in terms of cost, performance and safety.

I do have a problem with Seegopaul’s stance on intellectual property (IP); I reported on the nanotech IP bonanza (4000 in the US for 2012)  in my Jan. 4, 2013 posting,

Companies need to understand that intellectual property is an important consideration and the IP landscape is getting busy. US patent publications in the 977 nanotech class established by the USPTO are expected to reach 4000 in 2012.

Tim Harper, Chief Executive Officer of Cientifica (the company is cited in Seegopaul’s posting) isn’t particularly enthusiastic about patents either, from Harper’s Jan. 15, 2013 posting about graphene (a nanomaterial) on the Cientifica blog, Insight,

The UK has a number of companies producing decent quality graphene – a prerequisite for any applications – and the history of nanotechnology shows us that filing huge numbers of patents is no guarantee of commercial success.

The Cientifica mention in Seegopaul’s posting was made in the context of government funding,

Nanotechnology enjoys generous funding support. Cientifica recently estimated that governments around the world invested $67 billion over the last 11 years and projected $0.25 trillion in investments from all sources by 2015! [emphasis mine] The USA is expected to spend about $1.7 billion in 2012 and $1.8 billion has been requested for 2013. I expect that nations will continue to pour significant funding into nanotechnology.

Tim Harper gave an interview about  his company’s report Global Funding of Nanotechnologies and its Impact that was published in my July 15, 2012 posting.

Seegopaul’s posting is a good introduction, despite my concern over his IP stance, to nanotechnology but the title does seem to be stretching it a bit. Panagaea Ventures has been mentioned here before (May 14, 2010 posting) in the context of a local Vancouver-based smart window company, SWITCH Materials, which was founded by Neil Branda who was himself mentioned here in a Jan. 15, 2013 posting about the Canadian government funding of the Prometheus Project; a global innovation hub at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.

The latest in smart windows

At last there’s a new development in smart windows giving me fresh hope that I will see these in my lifetime. From the Sept. 6, 2011 news item on Nanowerk,

Researchers with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have unveiled a semiconductor nanocrystal coating material capable of controlling heat from the sun while remaining transparent (“Dynamically Modulating the Surface Plasmon Resonance of Doped Semiconductor Nanocrystals”). Based on electrochromic materials, which use a jolt of electric charge to tint a clear window, this breakthrough technology is the first to selectively control the amount of near infrared radiation. This radiation, which leads to heating, passes through the film without affecting its visible transmittance. Such a dynamic system could add a critical energy-saving dimension to “smart window” coatings.

“To have a transparent electrochromic material that can change its transmittance in the infrared portion of sunlight is completely unprecedented,” says Delia Milliron, director of the Inorganic Nanostructures Facility with Berkeley Lab’s Molecular Foundry, who led this research.

These kinds of coatings offer substantive energy savings. A lot of people don’t realize that buildings account for approximately 40% of the carbon emissions in the US. A smart window could theoretically lower the use of air conditioning and lighting by as much as 49% and 51% respectively according to the authors of the news item. I have seen similarly high numbers elsewhere so I am inclined to believe them.

Here’s what I think is the nifty part,

“Traditional electrochromic windows cannot selectively control the amount of visible and near infrared light that transmits through the film. When operated, these windows can either block both regions of light or let them in simultaneously,” says Guillermo Garcia, a graduate student researcher at the Foundry. “This work represents a stepping stone to the ideal smart window, which would be able to selectively choose which region of sunlight is needed to optimize the temperature inside a building.”

And then there’s the robot,

“Our ability to leverage plasmons in doped semiconductors with a very sensitive switching response in the near-infrared region also brings to mind applications in telecommunications,” Milliron adds. “We’ve also brought this synthesis into WANDA, our nanocrystal robot, which means we will be able to provide materials for a wide variety of user projects. “

I don’t see anything which indicates when this might be commercially available.

This latest development reminded me of Switch Materials, the Canadian smart window company that’s located in the Vancouver region. I last wrote about them in my May 14, 2010 posting and thought I’d check them out again. They have a new look on their website and a number of headings for different categories of purchasers such as architects, manufacturers, owners, etc. There’s also a list of the various media outlets that have featured the company. Strangely, there’s no mention of any customers and other than a very general description heavily weighted towards the advantages of the technology I was not able to find much detail about the technology. That’s also true of the news item but I expect more from a company website, especially a company offering an emerging technology. Finally, I was not able to discover how to purchase the product other than contacting a general phone number or sending a general inquiry to info@switchmaterials.com.

Smart windows in The Netherlands and in Vancouver

Michael Berger at Nanowerk has written a good primer on smart windows while discussing a specific project from The Netherlands. From Berger’s article,

‘Smart’ windows, or smart glass, refers to glass technology that includes electrochromic devices, suspended particle devices, micro-blinds and liquid crystal devices. Their major feature is that they can control the amount of light passing through the glass and increase energy efficiency of the room by reducing costs for heating or air-conditioning. In the case of self-powered smart windows the glass even generates the energy needed to electrically switch its transparency.

Smart windows can be electrochromic and/or photochromic. From an article by Alan Chen, of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, titled, New Photochromic Material Could Advance Energy-Efficient Windows,

A photochromic material is one that changes from transparent to a color when it is exposed to light, and reverts to transparency when the light is dimmed or blocked. An electrochromic material changes color when a small electric charge is passed through it. Both photochromic and electrochromic materials have potential applications in many types of devices.

As for how both materials could have applications appropriate for windows, Berger’s article describes a smart window that sounds like it’s both electrochromic and photochromics and has the added benefit of being able to power itself,

A new type of smart window proposed by researchers in The Netherlands makes use of a luminescent dye-doped liquid-crystal solution sandwiched in between electrically conductive plates as an energy-generating window.

The dye absorbs a variable amount of light depending on its orientation, and re-emits this light, of which a significant fraction is trapped by total internal reflection at the glass/air interface.

(For more details about this specific project, please read Berger’s full article.)

A few months ago I chanced across a local (Vancouver, Canada-based) start-up company, SWITCH Materials, that features technology for smart windows. From the company website (Technology page),

SWITCH’s advanced materials are based on novel organic molecules that react to both solar and electrical stimulation. Smart windows and lenses are the first commercial application under development at SWITCH. They darken when exposed to the sun and rapidly bleach on command when stimulated by electricity.

While competitive technologies rely on either photochromism or electrochromism, SWITCH’s hybrid technology offers the advantages of both, providing enhanced control and lower cost manufacturing.

• SWITCH’s technology also operates without requiring a continuous charge, and as a result has great potential for significant cost savings in many applications.

• The organic compounds in SWITCH’s materials are thermally stable and remain in their coloured state until electricity reverses the chemical transformation.

As far as I can tell, one of the big differences between this Canadian company’s approach and the Dutch research team’s is the Canadian’s use of organic compounds. Also, one of the key advantages (in addition to the ability to generate electricity) to the Dutch team’s approach is that users can control the window’s transmission of light.

I don’t know how close either the Canadian company (SWITCH) or the Dutch research team is to a commercial application but there is this excerpt from the Jan. 14, 2010 news release (on the Pangaea Ventures website),

SWITCH Materials Inc., an advanced materials company developing energy saving SMART window solutions, has raised $7.5M in Series B financing. The Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC Venture Capital) led the investment, with participation from existing investors GrowthWorks, Pangaea Ventures and Ventures West. Proceeds will be used for continuing R&D and to complete product commercialization.

“I am excited that an up and coming Canadian clean tech company will be added to our portfolio,” said Geoff Catherwood, Director of Venture Capital at BDC. “The technology being developed at SWITCH carries tremendous potential to address the burgeoning demand for a new generation of window technology. Producing a SMART window solution that can meet the price point required for significant market penetration will enable SWITCH to gain a leadership position in a large untapped market.” In conjunction with the financing, Mr. Catherwood will join the company’s Board of Directors.

I notice the news release makes no mention of a timeline for possible commercial applications or of competitors for that matter. In addition to the Dutch research team (there’s a Dutch company [I blogged about them here {scroll down}] that is producing something remarkably similar [it too offers control for transmission of light] to the Dutch research team’s smart windows profiled by Berger), there’s competition from the Americans who, recently, through their federal Dept. of Energy invested $72M (a loan guarantee added to previous investments) in SAGE Electrochromics.

The market for windows that could conceivably eliminate or seriously minimize the use of air conditioning is huge. In this era of concern about energy use and climate change, air conditioning is a problem as it uses a tremendous amount of energy, has a significant carbon footprint, and most importantly for business, it is expensive. Think of Hong Kong, Shanghai, Delhi, Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, Cairo, Tel Aviv, Nairobi,  Toronto, New York, Montréal, Chicago, Paris, London, Belgrade, Berlin, etc. during their respective hot seasons and the advantages of smart windows become quite apparent.

One last thing I’d like to mention about the Canadian company, it’s a Simon Fraser University (SFU), spinoff with Neil Branda, director of SFU’s nanotechnology centre, 4D Labs as their chief technical officer. Dr. Branda’s research work was last mentioned on this blog in a posting that featured, SFU scientists their phasers on stun as part of the title.