Nano-computing potential at University of Alberta attracts Lockheed Martin

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The future of computing just might be located on the fourth floor of the National Institute for Nanotechnology Building on the University of Alberta campus, in the headquarters of Quantum Silicon Inc, or QSi.

QSi is the commercialization vehicle for some 30 years of research by nano-science researcher and physics professor Dr. Robert Wolkow.

Dr. Wolkow’s expertise lies in his deep understanding of the atomic structure of silicon, uncovering fundamental scientific knowledge that can lead to new industrial products and processes at the nano-level.

Before delving into QSi’s potential to make faster, lighter and extremely efficient computers, QSi CEO Ken Gordonreviews the current technology used in the computer industry.

“The semi-conductor industry has been wildly successful because it has developed the technologies necessary to allow it to follow ‘Moore’s Law’,” says Gordon. “Every two years, the industry has been able to double the number of transistors on a given surface area of silicon, reducing the cost and increasing the speed of computing devices.”

That curve, using what’s known as CMOS (Complementary Metal-Oxide Semiconductor) has held true for 40 years.

But it is coming to an end. “Transistors use electrical current to do their calculations. For at least the last ten years, the power they use has not decreased with device size, so now they generate more heat than can be carried away by conventional cooling.

“The industry has had to adopt increasingly heroic measures – things like multi-core processors – to keep increasing the transistor count,” says Gordon. “But the speed of the processor in your computer hasn’t increased much, if at all, for the past several years.”

By way of practical impact, think of how your cell phone heats up when it’s in high use and the batteries are being drained.

Meanwhile, mega-computing requirements are needed more and more in everyday life.

A soldier today has to carry 15 kilograms worth of batteries to power his gear. The solution has to be better batteries … or better computers using far less power.

“The fact is the industry is within two to three generations away from the end of CMOS technology,” says Gordon. “There’re a number of options for what’s next. QSi is one of them.”

Working with science at the atomic level, QSi is developing logic devices that use an architecture known as “quantum dot cellular automata”.

Dr. Wolkow has discovered a ground-breaking way to control the state of individual electrons in collections of silicon atoms in such a way that they can be used to express “binary state” – the 1s and 0s used by conventional computers.

Dr. Wolkow’s atomic silicon quantum dot cells can be arranged to create the same series of on-and-off positions as is done today with transistors using CMOS technology. But these atomic scale devices use a fraction of the amount of physical space and about a thousand times less electricity.

“Quantum-dot cellular automata computing is not new,” says Gordon. “But it was impractical. The quantum dots that researchers previously used were only stable at temperatures just over absolute zero.  Bob’s single-atom silicon quantum dots can operate at room temperature. And, importantly, they’re made with silicon, which the industry understands. That means we have a revolutionary technology that provides the industry with a transitional path. Because of the silicon base, they can interface with CMOS devices.”

The new nano-technology is still far away from commercial viability. “The fundamental science is sound,” says Gordon, “but there are still some hard things to do.”

The technology, however, has interested American advanced technology giant Lockheed Martin. Through an agreement with the provincial government, Lockheed-Martin has picked QSi as one of three projects it is funding in.

“Lockheed Martin not only brings some money to the table,” says Gordon. “By working with them we gain important insight into the market – a deep understanding of what industry will want from this technology.”

As Dr. Wolkow’s laboratory work was funded and supported by both the University of Alberta and Canada’s National Research Council, TEC Edmonton’s Technology Management division worked closely with all the parties – the inventor, the university, the National Research Council and investors – so QSi could acquire Wolkow’s technology under a licensing agreement.

“Dr. Wolkow’s atomic-level computing technology is early in its commercialization path,” says TEC Edmonton Technology Management VP Jayant Kumar. “But it has huge potential. We’re excited to have played a role in this project.”

“We’re under no illusions,” says Gordon, a veteran entrepreneur with several high-tech startups under his belt. “We’re millions of dollars away from being found in a laptop or a cell phone.

“But being aligned with a company like Lockheed Martin is ideal. It knows how to mitigate risk. It gives us a portal into the market place.”

 

Much celebration was witnessed on Nov. 21, 2014, when the Hon. Rona Ambrose, Minister of Health, came to the TEC Centre in Edmonton’s Enterprise Square to announce funding to TEC Edmonton and Innovate Calgary for two major initiatives that can justly be expected to influence the economic future of Alberta.

The Canada Accelerator and Incubator Program, part of the Government of Canada’s Venture Capital Action Plan, has allocated $6 million over five years for TEC Edmonton to set up and run the TEC Health Accelerator and for Innovative Calgary to do the same with its Kinetica Ventures.

The small-to-medium sized technology-driven enterprises ((SMEs) that will be helped, Minister Ambrose said, were “the beating heart of the Canadian economy: 98% of our businesses are SMEs, nine of 10 jobs in this country are created by SMEs.”

The TEC Health Accelerator will assist promising startup health-care companies throughout Alberta to grow. Kinetica Ventures will work with new companies with technologies applicable to the provincial energy sector.

The Government of Canada, to encourage innovation and productivity within small to medium sized Canadian technology-based companies, turned to the country’s leading business incubators/accelerators and asked for proposals to best put the $100 million allocated to the Canadian Accelerator and Incubator Program (CAIP) to work.

A joint proposal was submitted by TEC Edmonton and Innovate Calgary through the University of Alberta, to build on the strengths of each region and agency.

Because of health research commercialization at the University of Alberta, TEC Edmonton has expertise in building health-care companies.

Innovate Calgary is highly experienced working with energy-based new technology companies.

Both organizations are not-for-profit, Innovate Calgary a partnership between the City of Calgary,the University of Calgary and the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, TEC Edmonton being a joint venture of the City of Edmonton and the University of Alberta.

The Alberta partnership was rewarded $6 million over five years from the NRC-IRAP administered CAIP program, split between the two partners.

At the Friday press conference, Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions CEO Cy Frank announced a provincial consortium
will co-develop with TEC Edmonton, Innovate Calgary, BIO Alberta and other partners a sustainable Health Small-to-Medium Enterprise innovation strategy for the province with specific services to be delivered by TEC Edmonton. The strategy, CEO Frank said, will help build a health-care industry eco-system ‘second to none.’”

City Councillor Michael Oshry announced further funding would be coming from the City of Edmonton, through the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation, to ensure the success of the TEC Health Accelerator.

“Health care is one of the last sectors not being completely disrupted by technology,” remarked EEDC CEO Brad Ferguson. “We all know it is coming, and it’s exciting (through the TEC Health Accelerator) to be a part of it.”

TEC Edmonton CEO Chris Lumb reviewed the on-going collaboration and partnering between the two Alberta city-based business incubator/accelerators, leading to the joint CAIP funding proposal.

Each technology-based incubator/accelerator has “deep expertise in specific sectors”, Lumb said. The partnership will bring that specific expertise to startup companies throughout the province.”

Both Lumb and Innovate Calgary’s Henry Kutarna are confident this seed capital will produce excellent results down the road.

The CAIP funding, Kutarna said, will be the “a spark to ignite” the growth of new, world-leading energy technology companies from Alberta.

In the health-care industrial sector, Lumb predicted, in 10 years time, that Alberta should be a leading region in the world for health-care companies.

“We’re already good,” he said, “but by 2024 we’ll be way further ahead than we are now.”

It’s all very well to frame genomics – the science that combines genetic information with functional trait information – just as a crucial Canadian agriculture business tool but there’s higher motive at work here.

“The reality,” says Delta Genomics CEO Colin Coros, “is the world needs to know how to produce enough food for nine billion by 2050. We believe that Genomic technologies will play a big part of solving that puzzle.”

So it is that  Edmonton-based Delta Genomics, a University of Alberta spin-off “project” is now a fully independent,  fee-for-service, but not-for-profit genomic testing service that is set to directly improve Canadian livestock and thereby indirectly enhance world-wide animal protein production.

Delta Genomics began as a partnership of agricultural research interests, all driven by the need for Canada, especially in Western Canada, to be on top of the fast-emerging genomic technologies that are changing the livestock breeding industry.

Delta Genomics refers to itself as the service arm of Livestock Gentec, a leading genomics research centre based at the University of Alberta, created and supported by Alberta Innovates Bio Solutions and the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency (ALMA).

TEC Edmonton has been working with Delta Genomics since its conception, helping the company get started, setting up  governance, grant applications, regulatory guidance and market development.  Delta Genomics is housed in TEC Edmonton’s TEC Centre for startup companies and organizations. Coros himself moved from TEC Edmonton, where he was a business development associate, to head up the fledgling genomic testing centre.

At the start in 2011, Delta Genomics received a crucial $3.5 million grant, over three years, from the federal Western Economic Diversification program to invest in some of the world’s most advanced genomics equipment.

Three years later, right on schedule, Delta Genomics has become an independent, not-for-profit genomic service provider.

“Three years ago, we celebrated the start of Delta Genomics in this room,” said Member of Parliament Laurie Hawn at the ceremony. “Today, we celebrate the end of federal funding for this project. It is great to see applied research being turned into something beneficial to society.”

In those three years, operating out of its TEC Centre laboratory, Delta Genomics has produced 380 full-genomic sequences for cattle, and partially genotyped 50,000 to 60,000 animals.

All the major Canadian beef breeds in Canada are now using genomic-based technology, leading to easier pedigree verification, plus the identification of traits as per genetic testing.

“It’s like transitioning photography from the darkroom to the digital age,” says Coros.

Delta Genomics is now a financially self-sustaining, not-for-profit company mandated to increase profitability, sustainability and competitiveness of the Canadian livestock industry.

“The Canadian beef industry is chasing what dairy has accomplished through genomic technology,” says Coros. The slower rate of adoption in the Beef sector is due a difference in the industry structure . While a dairy farmer keeps long-term records of his dairy cow, because they provide life-long income, a beef calf will pass from a cow-calf operation to a feedlot, to a packer.

Once fully integrated, genomics can support all the segements of the beef value chain – more weight for calves, feed-to-weight-gain ratios in feedlots, meat quality for the packer/consumer.

“In the beef ‘seed’ stock industry, genomic breeding technologies are rapidly advancing,” says Colin. “The opportunity now involves sharing that genomic information so that it can benefit the much larger commercial industry.”

Canada and Delta Genomics is still very much at the beginning of realizing the genomic potential of animal breeding.

“The USA is ahead of us,” says Coros. “We are still building the genomic data bases that will define animal traits of the future.  The more genotyping we do, the higher the accuracy of the traits become, which translates into better tests for the industry”

“But we are well positioned – because we export beef to the world and have better traceability.”

Genomic emphasis has been in cattle, but great progress has been made with swine. “Pigs are actually ahead of beef but behind dairy. Pig producers are focusing  on production quality and health traits – genomics to breed disease-resistant pigs.”

Genomic technologies can be applied to all animals. Its potential in aquaculture is huge. “Fish farms are breeding for more robust, faster-growing fish,” says Coros. “Canada has a huge opportunity to increase its acquaculture footprint and genomics can help to do that.”

It’s about bringing  genomic technologies to all Canadian livestock species, “providing genomic tools to everybody so we can select the best production animals in the world,” says Coros. “In 10 years, if every animal in Canada is not genetically tested it certainly will be genomically influenced. We’re well on our way to making that a reality.”

University of Alberta School of Business 1994 graduate Bindi Karia came back to Edmonton on November 7, 2014 to be the featured guest at the School of Business Alumni Association Annual Dinner in the Winspear Centre.

After graduation, Karia went on to London, England where, with a major accounting firm, she developed expertise in working with entrepreneurs.

Now affectionately referred to in the English financial press as the “Queen of Startups,” Karia is the London-based VP of Entrepreneur Banking for Silicon Valley Bank, a world-wide lender to technology companies that has funded more than 30,000 startups.

In a lively Q and A with TEC Edmonton CEO Chris Lumb as moderator, Karia had much to say.

Here are some of her observations on entrepreneurship and the entrepreneurial life.

“Today, it’s stupidly cheap to set up a startup company. Governments, universities and corporations are all involved.”

“An entrepreneur is tenacious, persistent, passionate. He or she is someone who refuses to believe in the norm, who sees a problem, and a solution to that problem. If the solution doesn’t stick, they get up and keep going.”

“A born entrepreneur refuses to follow the rules, and has an enormous ability to take on risk.”

“It’s never been so cheap to fail fast.”

“You’re nobody until you’ve failed three times.”

“Failure, as long as you learn from it, is a lesson, not a stigma.”

“Business plans are important if you’re looking for investors. Read Startup Metrics for Pirates. Often those metrics become your business plan.”

“Build, hack, throw it up and see if people want it.”

“An entrepreneur has to be very self-aware. They have to know their own weaknesses. Most great tech companies have co-founders.

“Mentors can be both good and bad, and that’s a good thing. It’s like your mom and dad in parenting – they contradict each other, but you just mash it up.”

“Government policy can be a good thing: East London Tech City was encouraged by British government which spent some money on the project and it’s now the third largest technology startup cluster in the world.”

“Government – cities – have to careful not to get too involved. Bureaucracy stifles innovation. Government can be supportive, but not bureaucratic.”

“My bank, Silicon Valley Bank, invests in technology at all stages. We lend pre-profit, but not pre-revenue.”

“Build your personal network. Read the book Never Eat Alone. Pay it forward. Encourage entrepreneurs without expecting things in return. It’s about karma.”

“Don’t be scared to ask. Other people like to help.”

“Technology leaders are here to stay. They are rock stars. It’s okay to glamourize them. They’re making a difference, changing the world. Getting there isn’t very glamourous. It’s never-ending 24/7. The unicorns … they’ve all been through a seven to 10 year cycle.”

Moderator Lumb put his tongue gently in his cheek with the following question to Karia: “Suppose you moved back to the fastest-growing city in Canada with the country’s best university – Edmonton! What would you do?”

Without missing a beat, Karia leaned forward and said, “I’d join TEC Edmonton!”

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