Filter fortunes

Filter fortunes

McMaster University's separation technology results in commercial successes
July 31, 2006
Scientist and inventor Thomas Edison firmly believed that the value of research was best defined by the usefulness of the results. “Anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent,” Edison once said. “Its sale is proof of utility, and utility is success.”
 

A fellow believer in the commercial value of research is Lisa Crossley. Five years in product development at a biopharmaceutical start-up company left her with an entrepreneurial spirit and an eye for the next big opportunity.

That opportunity came when she was hired as a chemical engineering professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. It didn’t take Crossley long to recognize the potential of the next-generation membrane technology developed under Ronald Childs at the university’s Membrane Research Group. Childs’s membrane works better and costs less than current separation technologies that have a wide-range of applications in bioprocessing, small-scale bioanalytics, blood processing, and food and beverage processing. The timing was perfect. Childs was nearing retirement and the future of the technology and his research group were uncertain.

“I had some ideas for applications for his technology,” says Crossley. “I saw an opportunity to form a company.” And she was right. In October 2004, Crossley became president and CEO for the newly formed Nysa Membrane Technologies Inc. in Bdefaultington, Ontario. Nysa aims to commercialize Childs’s revolutionary macroporous gel membrane technology. Just six months after launch, Nysa obtained one of the largest rounds of seed-level venture financing—a $2 million infusion—and is currently working on closing a multi-million dollar round of venture financing.

Nysa took on three researchers from Childs’s group, including technology co-founder Alicja Mika, who became Nysa’s director of research. Once the staff was secured, Nysa officials then had to convince McMaster University to part with its intellectual property (IP) for the technology. The university agreed and became a partner of Nysa’s. With this solid foundation, at least $1 million in revenues is expected next year and $6 million in three years. “And if we are successful in establishing a relationship with one of the large multinationals—and we have a lot of interest—it could be significantly higher than that,” affirms Crossley.

Specifically, the company’s goal is to develop membrane products capable of extracting proteins for use in a new generation of pharmaceuticals. Herceptin, used to treat breast cancer, is an example of such a protein-based drug. The process of extracting a pharmacological protein is extremely costly and time consuming using traditional methods. Nysa’s membrane technology is less expensive to manufacture, does not use expensive and rare materials as a catalyst, can be made disposable, and is easier to maintain. This can reduce extraction costs by as much as 90 percent.

Nysa is also working with a large food and beverage producer to purify food proteins, and with a wastewater treatment company for filtration. Blood processing, extracting hydrogen for fuel cells, and water softening are just a few of the possible applications with Childs’s discovery, which actually came about by chance.

“We came at this new family of membranes, I’ll admit, by accident,” recalls Childs. Childs and his team were originally trying to develop a coating to enhance a fabric. The project didn’t work as planned, but Childs was very intrigued by the properties of the material they wound up inventing. The gels alone couldn’t be used as membranes because they were just “soft and squishy” with no real structure. But when the gels were anchored in a microporous host or substrate, like a kitchen pot scrubber pad with a woven fibre-like structure, “we suddenly got these supported gels which are mechanically very strong,” says Childs.

Unlike other membranes, the properties of the anchored gel membranes can be readily altered to suit various applications. By varying the gels, it is possible to control the exact hole (or pore) sizes in the membrane from 0.5 microns down to 0.001 microns. The versatility of Childs’s membranes makes them more suitable to a vast array of industry application.

Benefits

When Ronald Childs was approaching retirement and foresaw the eventual winding down of his membrane technology research at McMaster University, Thomas Edison’s benchmark for research success entered his mind. “I was reaching 65 and I wanted to see the membranes get out the door and get commercialized,” says Childs. “The corporate arena was what was driving us.”

The cost of separation or extraction of one or more components is a major factor in the commercial world of product development. In the case of the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, the cost of such processes can run as high as 80 percent of production. “We have developed a totally new membrane platform which can dramatically reduce those costs,” says Childs.

Lisa Crossley calls Childs’s gel-based membranes “truly disruptive technology” because they will shake up industry practice by providing a very low-cost, easy-to-use, disposable alternative to the industry standard of resin chromatography.

Through her creation of Nysa Membrane Technologies, Crossley has been able to take Childs’s technology and bring it to commercial development. Without this launch into industry, Childs’s discovery may have languished in the university’s patent portfolio.

Partners

Fielding Chemical Technologies, Canada’s largest recycler of solvents based in Mississauga, Ontario, is also sold on the microporous gel-based membranes through its research partnership with Ronald Childs. Fielding has built a pilot plant with the new technology to help break the azeotrope that forms in the recovery process for rubbing alcohol (isopropyl alcohol). Fielding collaborated with Childs to develop its own form of technology called pervaporation, and the anchored gel membrane technology with a specially designed gel is integral to it. The company has lab tested the membrane to purify a number of products other than isopropyl alcohol. Pilot plant tests are scheduled for the near future. If they are successful, the technology holds significant economic potential for recycling a range of waste products.

Materials and Manufacturing Ontario (MMO) is an Ontario Centre of Excellence making connections between university research and the needs of Ontario industry by supporting research in materials and manufacturing, developing partnerships, training qualified graduate students with an industrial orientation, and transferring knowledge and technology to industry. MMO was instrumental in linking the research at McMaster University’s Membrane Research Group with Fielding Chemical Technologies.

Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada is a long-time funder of research at the Membrane Research Group. Ronald Childs credits NSERC’s funding for “helping lay the whole theoretical basis for the membrane technology.”