Interview with Matthew Lowe

AUGMENTED REALITY

matthew_lowe

Matt is a lifelong tech hacker and founder/CEO of ZeroKey, an AR/VR company headquartered in Calgary, Alberta. He is passionate about entrepreneurship, virtual reality and software development. After getting frustrated with decades old input hardware, he founded ZeroKey in 2015 and set out to revolutionize the world of computing with a completely new type of human-machine interface that features high accuracy hand, finger and body tracking.

 

1. You are the CEO of ZeroKey Inc. Can you tell us more about your company and what you do?

You bet, that’s the fun part of my job!

ZeroKey is a company that set out to revolutionize the way people interact with technology. If you think about it, today we still use the same primitive technology that we did 40 years ago. We still mash keys on a keyboard that are laid out in a rather arbitrary flat grid. At ZeroKey we set out to find a better way, which is exactly where our name comes from; ZeroKey – as in zero keys.

Imagine if the computer knew in real-time the precise 3D location of your hands, fingers, arms, et cetera. Armed with this information the interaction between human and machine becomes very natural, very intuitive, and responsive to user intent. Suddenly we have this capability to provide intelligent AR/VR solutions and natural interfaces to make the connection between people and technology seamless. This means shorter learning curves, increased productivity, and new solutions that simply were not possible before.

It sounds a bit like science fiction, but this technology is already being deployed around the world today!

2. How is the virtual reality (VR) scene doing in Alberta compared to Canada, and where do you see the potential of this technology?

Alberta is surprisingly strong in AR/VR technology. It would seem like a strange sector to come out of oil & gas country, but as it turns out, the type of architectural and industrial challenges that AR/VR is great at solving are also common in the oil & gas industry. Many Alberta AR/VR companies have built great industrial solutions that are now being broadly applied to AR/VR as a whole.

In Calgary, Alberta, where ZeroKey is headquartered, we have a very strong and world renown academic community in the field of geomatics, which includes technologies related to positioning, like GPS. Industry leaders in that field including NovaTel, TopCon, and TDK-InvenSense, all have a major presence in Calgary. This expertise is the whole reason ZeroKey exists today; without that background in positioning technologies we could have never developed the technology that we have.

3. You developed a VR glove together with the design studio BeBop. What is new and innovative about this glove, and what are fields of its application?

Our VR glove started as a proof-of-concept to show off the capabilities of our ultra-high accuracy positioning system. It provides a very natural method of interacting with digital environments and as a result, requires no prior training. This leads to a host of applications covering almost every aspect of computing. Some of the more exciting applications include remote surgery, robotic control and of course immersive video games. Once you digitize the position and orientation of the hand and fingers you can drive amazing solutions that will make our current-day keyboards seem like the dial-up modem of yesteryear.

4. ZeroKey Inc. won the Samsung Developer Conference Pitch Competition 2017. At the conference you mentioned that VR is not accessible to mainstream consumers. Do you see reasons for why that could be and is ZeroKey Inc. planning to change this development?

For mainstream consumers in the AR/VR market I think there’s a real problem with having your cake and eating it too. Consumers either have to choose between low-cost solutions that offer poor experiences or shell out megabucks for high-end systems.

We’re working to bring down the total cost of ownership of AR/VR by deploying our 6-Degrees-of-Freedom tracking technology in low-cost headsets. This pairing of technology will bring affordable high-quality AR/VR to mainstream markets at a fraction of the cost of current products in market.

5. In which fields do you see VR having the biggest impact and how do you think VR will impact future technology development in those areas?

We’ve already seen VR transform the gaming industry, however if we look further down the road it’s hard to think of an activity that AR won’t improve in some way. From repairing your bicycle to cooking dinner, AR can improve all of these day-to-day tasks in a seamless and unobtrusive way. Much like the PC, the internet, smartphones, and now AR, these technologies transform how people live their lives. At ZeroKey we hope to be a small part of that.

 

6. VR has been around for a couple of years now, and has been attracting more and more attention as the technology keeps improving. This resulted in a certain hype of the technology similar to artificial intelligence in the last few years. While the advantages and applications of the technology are manifold, do you also see risks or problems that its use may entail?

When it comes to any transformative technology there is always the potential for misuse. However, from a risk perspective I think AR/VR is rather benign compared to other new technologies. If you look at use-cases like remote surgery and training for dangerous tasks, it’s easy to see that AR/VR will have a very quantifiable and positive impact on humanity.

 

Advertisements

Interview with Dave Damer

WORKING INNOVATIVELY IN A DIGITAL WORLD

Dave1 (1)

Dave is a computer engineer and proven tech entrepreneur with over 27 years of business leadership experience, 18 of which have been spent building startupsIn 2017, Dave founded Testfire Labs, a software company that uses machine learning and artificial intelligence to build productivity solutions that modernize the way people work, so they can achieve more, faster. Testfire’s flagship product iHendrix.aian AI-assistant that transcribes meeting summaries and action items, audits meeting history, and drops it all into a simple, searchable dashboard, for unprecedented organization and productivity insights. In 2018, Hendrix.ai won the Startup Canada Prairies Region Innovation Award.

1) You are working at Testfire Labs, an award-winning AI start-up based in Edmonton. Can you tell us more about your company and what you do?

Testfire Labs is developing the next generation of business productivity tools that leverage applied artificial intelligence along with cutting edge application development techniques to build capacity and augment existing knowledge workers.

Since our inception in March of 2017, Testfire has grown from a solo operation to a team of 14 talented individuals, we were named a Top Startup to Watch by Startup Edmonton, and we were awarded the 2018 Startup Canada Prairies Region Innovation Award.

Testfire’s flagship products is Hendrix.ai, an AI-assistant that transcribes meeting summaries and action items, audits meeting history, and drops it all into a simple, searchable dashboard, for unprecedented organization and productivity insights. Since launching to public beta in the fall of 2017, more than 100 companies of all sizes and across all industries have signed up for Hendrix.

Testfire Labs is currently actively exploring 6 additional product opportunities as a direct result of Hendrix.ai and its capabilities, with plans to rapidly scale to commercialize multiple products across a variety of industries and applications.

 

2) How does Testfire contribute to working innovatively in a digital world?

One of the reasons I started Testfire Labs was I was finding people were just overwhelmed with all the interactions they had to deal with on a day-to-day basis, and when I saw the potential of what was happening in the artificial intelligence space, I knew there were opportunities to leverage that technology to help people be more engaged in their daily activity and be more focused while transitioning priorities throughout the day. In order to accomplish this, we’re building both products and expertise in the areas of voice assistants, chat bots, and summarization of data.

 

3) You have developed the artificial intelligent assistant “Hendrix.ai”. At the moment it is being tested by companies in meetings, where it takes notes by listening in via microphone. How do you think this will impact a company’s productivity and efficiency?

Meeting ROI is steadily declining and its estimated approx. $37 billion in salaries are wasted in ineffective meetings each year. Meetings are due for an upgrade, and that’s where Hendrix comes in.

While Hendrix does transcribe meeting minutes, it goes above and beyond the purely mechanical tasks of basic voice interaction and simple date-point transcription that competitors provide. Professionals in almost every organization participate in countless meetings every week, with no way to easily keep track of their notes and action items, recall key meeting details, or understand their meeting history.

Hendrix not only transcribes meeting minutes and action items, but also provides users the ability to edit the content he does provide, ensuring all participants walk away from the meeting on the same page, understanding exactly what was discussed, what needs to be done, and when its due.

The dashboard organization features ensure all meeting data is easily accessible anytime, from anywhere, improving institutional memory while employees are away, in the event they leave the organization, etc. Additionally, Hendrix uses machine learning to analyze user meeting history, providing valuable insights into meeting frequency, length, etc., as well as surfaces meeting trends and topics for better recall of key meeting details.

 

4) Are there any problems that teams may encounter while working with AI assistants?

The primary consideration when selecting AI-driven tools needs to be the predominant areas of inefficiency for that individual organization. While some AI assistants, like Hendrix, are useable and beneficial by anyone, across any organization, based on their broad application, others are quite niche in their scope.

Leveraging any technology, including AI assistants, for the simple sake of it will only serve to create greater inefficiency. In order for businesses to get the most out of technology, they need to truly understand where their greatest inefficiencies lie, then reconsider their operations and processes so that a partnership between both tools and human resources is created for the benefit of that business’s bottom line.

 

5) Even in a digital world, companies are still being led by humans. However, AI is taking over more and more tasks. Where do you see the limits for its use?

AI has obviously ignited fear in some industries and in some people, that machines will take over their jobs and they’ll be viewed as unnecessary, but I don’t see it that way. AI is really about giving employees the space and the tools they need to be more effective in their jobs.

Machines may be taking away menial, repetitive tasks, but what they’re not taking away human skills – skills like leadership, teamwork, creativity or emotional intelligence. That’s the limit for AI; it‘s not meant to replace us, it’s meant to partner with us to support us so we can do so much more.

New Membership: GCCIR joins IraSME and attends BMWi’s Innovation Day in Berlin

IMG_2494
Main stage at Innovation Day, photo by: Katelyn Petersen
IMG_3092
GCCIR Manager Katelyn Petersen testing a VR training module for hip replacement surgery, photo by: Jonas Kuhn

irasme logo_transparent

In light of the new Alberta-Europe Technology Collaboration Fund established by the Alberta Ministry of Economic Development and Trade (EDT) and the German-Canadian Centre for Innovation and Research (GCCIR), the GCCIR has joined the IraSME network.

IraSME is a network of ministries and funding agencies, which offer national and regional funding programs for cooperative research projects between small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). The network supports SMEs in their transnational innovation activities, and helps them access technological expertise, extend their own networks and bridge the gap between research and innovation.

Twice a year, IraSME issues calls for proposals for transnational cooperative research projects between SMEs and research and technology organizations (RTOs), with the objective of developing innovative products, processes and/or services in technological fields. The calls follow a bottom-up approach, meaning research topics are not pre-defined and are open to all technology sectors. Funding for collaboration projects is made available through national and regional funding programs administered by the respective ministry or funding agency participating in the IraSME network.

The IraSME membership provides the GCCIR with a unique tool to administer the Alberta-Europe Technology Collaboration Fund in Alberta, and to advise on respective funding agencies partnering companies could potentially apply to. The network will also benefit GCCIR in future matchmaking missions to Europe; missions the GCCIR offers to Albertan SMEs looking to find international collaboration partners.

Read the latest IraSME Newsletter containing the announcement of GCCIR’s membership here.

The official announcement of GCCIR’s membership in the IraSME network took place at Innovation Day, on June 7, 2018, in Berlin. It was an honor for GCCIR Manager Katelyn Petersen and Senior Project Coordinator Jonas Kuhn to travel to Germany and attend Innovation Day for this special occasion.

Also celebrating ZIM’s 10 years anniversary, this year’s Innovation Day had exceptional significance. With more than 300 companies and research institutes presenting a variety of innovations developed with the support of the German Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi), and more than 2000 visitors and attendees, it was a particularly exciting and productive showcase of technology development and international coopertation.


Links:

https://irasme-cornet-berlin-2018.b2match.io/page-1561

https://www.zim.de/ZIM/Navigation/DE/Infothek/Veranstaltungen/veranstaltungen.html

GCCIR at Global Petroleum Show 2018: Minister Hon. Deron Bilous highlights impact of international R&D collaborations between SMEs

1528829088743_51555523-a235-4a60-808f-8c50056d4265
In the picture from left to right: Vladimir Mravcak (Chairman, Atlantis Research Labs), Hon. Deron Bilous (Minister of Economic Development and Trade), Dr. Andreas Sichert (CEO, Orcan Energy AG), and Markus Lintl (Head of Industry & New Business, Orcan Energy AG)

This month the GCCIR attended one of the biggest shows around technologies in the oil and gas sector, the Global Petroleum Show, in Calagry. Also attending were Orcan Energy AG from Germany and Atlantis Research Labs Inc. from Alberta. The two SMEs have recently entered into an innovative R&D collaboration. To learn about this new collaboration project and highlight the impact that the Albert government’s R&D funding programs have, Hon. Deron Bilous, Minister of Economic Development and Trade (EDT), stopped by the Orcan Energy AG and Atlantis Research Labs Inc.’s booths at the Global Petroleum Show.

The collaboration project Orcan Energy AG and Atlantis Research Labs Inc. have entered into is funded through the Alberta-Europe Technology Collaboration Fund, a program created by EDT and administered by the German-Canadian Centre for Innovation and Research (GCCIR) to support Albertan companies, foster economic growth in Alberta, and encourage international knowledge transfer between Alberta and Europe.

Interview with Dr. Chad Bousman

PRECISION MEDICINE

Chad_Bousman_320x350

Dr. Chad Bousman is Assistant Professor at the Department of Medical Genetics, Psychiatry, and Philosophy & Pharmacology at the University of Calgary and a member of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute. The broad vision of his research is to discover, develop, and evaluate genomic-based tools with the utility to guide clinical decision-making and improve mental health outcomes. His primary focus is on optimizing the selection and dosing of drug therapies used to treat depression and schizophrenia. Dr. Bousman is also actively involved in the research examining the interactive effect genes and environments have on the brains of those with mental health problems.

1) You work at the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute at the University of Calgary. Can you tell us about the organization and if precision medicine already plays a big role there?

 The Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI) supports excellence in research, innovation and knowledge translation to improve the health and well-being of children from pre-conception to adulthood.  A multi-disciplinary institute of the University of Calgary, Alberta Health Services and the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation, the institute creates new knowledge to change practice and shape policy in ways that improve child health outcomes.

Precision medicine is medical care designed to optimize efficiency or therapeutic benefit for particular groups of patients, especially by using genetic or molecular profiling. The institute pursues precision medicine by assisting in the diagnosis of children with rare diseases and enabling individually-focused treatments, including pharmacogenomics where my lab sits. The importance of this research cannot be overstated. One in four children admitted to the Alberta Children’s Hospital is a patient with a hereditary illness. (i.e. arthritis, cystic fibrosis, sickle cell) The Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute is one of a few institutes in Canada which can provide rapid genetic testing of rare illnesses to provide meaningful answers to families and clinicians. We have been designated by the University of Calgary as the Centre for Health Genomics and Bioinformatics.  Our researchers can also provide experimental gene therapy for some specific disorders by engineering viruses that carry corrected proteins and reintroduce these cells into the patient through a bone marrow transplant.

More information about ACHRI can be found at: www.research4kids.ucalgary.ca

2) You focus on optimizing drug therapy to treat mental illnesses, especially depression and schizophrenia. Are there big differences using precision medicine in psychiatric care in comparison to other medical disciplines?  

Precision medicine encompasses a number of strategies for optimizing medical care and these strategies can differ across medical disciplines. The precision medicine strategy that my research focuses on is pharmacogenetics. Pharmacogenetics uses a person’s genetic information to assist doctors in the selection and dosing of medications. There is substantial overlap in how pharmacogenetics is used in psychiatric care and other medical disciplines. However, disciplines such as psychiatry, neurology, oncology, and cardiology are furthest along in the implementation of pharmacogenetics into clinical practice.

3) The costs of precision medicine seem to be higher than those of more traditional treatments. Is precision medicine also a question of money?

Costs are certainly a key concern when it comes to precision medicine but it is important to differentiate between short-term costs and long-term costs. In the short-term, the costs of delivering precision medicine is often higher than traditional treatment approaches because precision medicine is typically associated with the introduction of new technology or additional testing. However, clinical trials are now demonstrating that these upfront costs are off-set by the long-term cost-savings that precision medicine provides. For example, the cost of ordering a pharmacogenetic test prior to prescribing an antidepressant can range from $100-$500, a significant upfront cost relative to standard prescribing practice. However, this testing can assist doctors in selecting an antidepressant that has a higher probability of working for a particular individual, ultimately saving >$3,500 in direct medical costs over the person’s life.

4) If you compare the use of precision medicine worldwide how well is Canada doing?

The clinical use of precision medicine remains limited around the world. However, Canada along with a number of other countries are at the forefront of the precision medicine revolution. As with any new and bold initiative, precision medicine’s successes in Canada will depend heavily on the resources made available for research and implementation projects.

 5) What are the main challenges for precision medicine in the future?

Precision medicine is still early in its evolution and will require local and global collaborations to facilitate its transition into routine care. I think one of the biggest challenges will be redesigning healthcare systems to enable seamless integration of precision medicine into practice. This redesign will include education of healthcare providers and consumers on the use and limitations of precision medicine innovations, improvement of electronic health records, and the development of new treatment and prevention guidelines that are aligned with the precision medicine era.

Interview with Prof. Dr. Dietmar Kennepohl

ONLINE EDUCATION

dietmar_talk2

Dr. Dietmar Kennepohl is Professor of Chemistry and former Accosiate VP Acedemic at Athabasca University, a leading Canadian university offering online courses and degree programs through distance education. He graduated Summa Cum Laude from McMaster University with a B.Sc. (Honours) degree in chemistry in 1984 and continued directly to his doctoral studies in main group synthetic chemistry at the University of Alberta, where he obtained a Ph.D. in 1990. He became an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow at Georg-August-Universität Göttingen in Germany, where he investigated Te-N and Mn-N chemistry and later returned to Canada to design molecular metals as a post-doctoral fellow with a research group at the University of Guelph. Dr. Kennepohl is also the Past President of the Humboldt Association of Canada and current Director of the Humboldt Foundation Liaison Office in Canada, as well as Secretary on the GCCIR Board. He is a well-published science researcher and has a strong commitment to online teaching.

1) You are a professor of chemistry at Athabasca University and you have written the book “Teaching science online”.  Can you tell us more about teaching online?

The emergence of new technologies and their promise of better instructional facilitation are not new to educators and so learning online provides both new opportunities and challenges. My university is unusual as it is 100% online and at a distance. That flexibility together with our open approach is part of a strong social mandate to provide access to quality university education. A much more common scenario would be traditional campus-based institutions blending online and face-to-face modes of teaching. In either situation in a world of ubiquitous knowledge the appeal of online learning is about convenience and supporting a more independent learner. Teaching and learning online opens the door to some interesting opportunities.

2) Do you see differences in teaching sciences online in comparison to other subjects?

Very much so. Every discipline and sub-discipline has its own particular epistemology, language, culture, and its own way of doing things. Students are not merely learning facts and concepts, they usually undergo an apprenticeship within their discipline. However, the approach to teaching and learning in the science disciplines also tries to reflect scientific methodology or process. That is, students are expected to state a problem, ask questions, make observations, keep records, offer explanations, create a design or carry out an experiment, and communicate findings with others. The vehicle to learning is problem solving and scientific inquiry, and this forms the model for navigating and dealing with hypotheses, facts, laws, and theories. It is therefore not surprising that the practical components are at the heart of most science programs—yet this practical component is incredibly challenging to do properly online and at a distance.

3) What are the key elements of successful online education?

Essentially good teaching is good teaching. There are basic practices and principles for creating a learning environment that will lead to student success. Of course some of these are particular to the online mode including selecting appropriate technology, providing technical support and training, exploiting open educational resources, or taking a team approach when developing and delivering courses to name a few. However, many of the more important principles are applicable to any mode of teaching such as engaging the learner early, focusing on concepts rather than content, avoiding cognitive overload, providing timely feedback, and so on.

4) When did you start to use online teaching methods and can you give us some examples of the ways you teach certain material to your students online?

The initial Athabasca University model was independent study courses with print-based material and telephone tutor support. As newer technologies became available, they were experimented with and, if found useful, adopted. Assignments originally sent through the postal system can now be submitted electronically. In the mid 90s my chemistry courses were hybrid—having both print and online components. It was not until this past decade that AU has truly moved online. This was precipitated by a number of system-wide changes across the entire university including adopting a standard learning management system to house courses (including electronic versions of all AU learning materials), the preference of both students and teachers to move away from telephone communications, the move towards e-textbooks and/or OER textbooks to replace commercial print materials, and finally the integration of a student relationship management system.

So, for example, my organic chemistry students work through their course online. Each section has clearly stated learning objectives with online activities including readings where they are linked to a ‘textbook’ which is an online wiki. Assignments are done and submitted electronically. They do attend face-to-face supervised laboratories. However, some components of the laboratory (pre-lab work, spectroscopy simulations, etc.) are done online. We are now even experimenting with having students analyzing products made in the laboratory by remote access to instrumentation.

5) How do you see the future of online education?

There are several exciting developments on the horizon for online learning and I’ll mention only a couple. The most obvious being new technologies that allow connectivity to both content and people. One subset of this has been the emergence of mobile devices and the entire area of mobile learning. Science educators (especially those doing field work) have been looking at this to facilitate online learning in the field. With handheld GPS-enabled mobile devices one is not limited by classroom walls and can readily do self-guided field work and in situ learning. Another area of interest is big data and learning analytics. Once a course and learner activities are digital they are also trackable. One can take that information to tailor courses to individuals and their learning styles. Finally, open educational resources has a big role in the future of learning online. Collaboration, sharing, reusing and adapting content is an emerging trend that will have a profound effect on quality of learning. Together online education will not only become even more flexible and accessible, but will also rise in quality and personalization.

6) Do you see signs that the already existing online universities could replace the classical ones?

I do not think so. A few years ago this same question was asked surrounding the hype on MOOCs (massive open online courses). Apparently MOOCs would shake the very foundations of higher education to the ground, and by 2060 there would only be 10 universities in the world. I do not believe that this is happening at all. Certainly the online learning environment will be used more to supplement existing universities and will dramatically increase capacity of and access to higher education worldwide. Still, there are other social interactions and learning opportunities classic on-campus universities provide that will continue to be valued and sought after.

There is another final thought. The initial concern with MOOCS was also that were meant to cut labour costs by replacing faculty, but I think the bigger and better discussion is around the role of the teacher itself. In a world of ubiquitous knowledge, what added value do we provide as educators? Indeed, online education is forcing this question on an entire generation of teachers and may end up being one of its biggest contributions to learning.

Interview with Dr. Alexandra Latnikova

MICROENCAPSULATION

1

My name is Alexandra Latnikova and I work at the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research in the Microencapsulation and Particle Applications Group. I became interested in microencapsulation about 10 years ago when I moved from Russia to Germany and started my PhD thesis devoted to the development of smart anticorrosion coatings containing micro- and nanocapsules.

As soon as the PhD thesis was finished I started to look for ways to apply the knowledge I had acquired and make it more broadly useful. Fraunhofer struck me as a very interesting organization to work with, since it is the place where the world of ideas (science and creativity) overlaps with the material world (business, implementation and product development) on an everyday basis, which I found and still find very stimulating and inspiring. I believe that perceiving both worlds simultaneously helps me to gain an integral knowledge about how the universe functions and to understand what my own place in it can be.

1) Can you tell us more about the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research? What are the goals of the organization?

Fraunhofer is the largest application-oriented research organization in Europe. Our Institute’s website states that: “Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research (IAP) specializes in researching and developing polymer applications. It supports companies and partners in the customized development and optimization of innovative and sustainable materials, processing aids and processes. In addition to characterizing polymers, the institute also produces and processes polymers in an environmentally-friendly and cost-effective way on a laboratory and pilot plant scale.” I personally would formulate the main goal of the organization as bringing up-to-date polymer science to serve the current needs of society. These needs are identified through communication and collaboration with local and international companies active in relevant brunches of industry, as well as through ongoing dialogue with  local government and through monitoring  emerging trends around the globe.

Based on these inputs we decide at which level our engagement is the most reasonable. For example, companies often contact us because they have a problem that they cannot solve alone due to a lack of time, knowledge, or equipment. In this case, our role is to find a customized solution as quickly and effectively as possible (on a several months scale) using the portfolio of the whole institute (a network of approximately 200 scientists with a very broad range of backgrounds). In some cases short-term solutions are not possible, and in this case we prefer to engage in longer-term publicly-funded research projects (several years scale) and develop strategies and solutions together with our partners. Combining both strategies gives us an opportunity to be aware of the current needs, as well as to keep our know-how up-to-date.

The institute is divided into divisions, which consider various aspects and application fields of polymer chemistry, polymer physics and polymer biology. More information about the structure of the institute can be found here: https://www.iap.fraunhofer.de/en/about_us/Overview.html

2) Your recent research projects are in the field of microencapsulation and particle applications. Can you tell what this is it about (e.g. goals, scope, duration of the projects, expected outcome…) and how it can be applied in different fields?

“Microencapsulation and particle applications” is the name of our working group, which belongs to the division of Synthesis and Polymer Technology. This group started its first microencapsulation activities about 30 years ago. Since then the group members have been screening, evaluating, selecting, developing, refining and tailoring the whole available spectrum of microencapsulation technologies and approaches presented in the academic and patent literature in order to be able to offer the technologies with the best possible output.

Microencapsulation is the generic term for numerous technologies, which are often utilized when the release rate of a certain functional substance in a medium has to be controlled and/or contact between the active substance and the medium has to be prevented (for example if the substance reacts with other components or with the environment). This is achieved by wrapping the tiny particles or droplets of the functional substance (capsule core) with a thin layer of another material (capsule shell). The permeability of the shell determines whether, how fast and under which conditions the active material will be released.

Most of the processes used for the production of microcapsules are self-assembly processes, which means that we are able to produce very complex micro-structured materials in a few synthesis steps using broadly available equipment with very high precision and in large  quantities. To produce our capsules we use commercially available synthetic and natural polymers and building blocks in order to shorten the path to commercialization. The processes used for the microencapsulation are very diverse and include emulsion-based, as well as spraying and dripping technologies.

We intentionally do not prioritize any application direction, since we believe that an interdisciplinary approach is best at this point. It allows us to keep a good overview of available technologies, combining them and getting inspiration for the development of new ones. For example, we produced microcapsules containing:

– Perfumes for personal care applications, which release smell over months and/or repel insects

– Catalysts, which can be released at a chosen temperature to activate a glue or sealant

– Plastic additives, which can be more homogeneously distributed in the polymer matrix

– Probiotic bacteria, which should survive  passage through the stomach

– Phase change materials, which store thermal energy and release it over night

– Photochromic pigments, which migrate in a polymer matrix and deactivate if not encapsulated

– Microelements, which must be released in a specific part of the digestive system

3) Do you have other research projects in the field of microencapsulation ongoing or recently finished? What were they about? Which projects were successfully implemented on the market?

Currently, one of our projects is devoted to the microencapsulation of a biocide. The goal of the project is to encapsulate the biocide in such way that it would be released from an architectural coating 5 times slower than if it were not encapsulated. This allows us to either prolong the lifetime of the coating substantially (for example, a five year guarantee instead of two years), or to reduce the amount of the biocide in the coating (sometimes several times) without changing the antifouling performance. This is possible because the amount of biocide actually added to the paint is much higher than necessary for the protection from microorganisms. The problem is that the biocide molecules are very mobile and leak out of the coating after two years. When released into the environment at high concentrations, biocides can harm other organisms, which were not initially targeted. Thus, microencapsulation allows us to improve the quality of the product, while simultaneously saving money and protecting the environment. The same principle is applied for ship antifouling coatings, as well as for pesticides and fertilizers used in agriculture.

4) In which field(s) do you foresee microencapsulation having the biggest impact and why?

We think that, in the short term, microencapsulation will mainly impact those application fields that rely on utilization of functional substances in low concentrations or where the concentration of the functional substance must be carefully controlled. These include all the application fields for biocides, pesticides, fertilizers and, of course, medical applications (drug delivery). We believe that these applications also have the highest social impact and can be implemented on the market more successfully than some others, because they simply have higher priority at the moment.

Over the long term, we expect microencapsulation to eventually penetrate every field of life, since it allows for fabrication of materials with very defined and complex microstructures. Microstructuring, in turn, opens the door to so called smart, responsive and programmable materials, which are able to sense and react to the environment autonomously.

 

5) What are the main challenges encountered when conducting microencapsulation experiments?

One of the main scientific challenges is tailoring  microencapsulation processes to athe particular functional substance. When we initially develop a technology in the lab, we test it with several model substances to see if it can be used for substances with various properties. Often, when we change the model substance, we have to change the whole recipe, since self-assembly processes are very sensitive to  minor changes in the environment. We need to have a very deep understanding of the processes on the molecular level, as well as trust our scientific intuition, in order to succeed in this task.

Another challenge is when we want to keep the process going the same way and keep the final quality of the product, but to change the building blocks. For example, at the moment many companies are interested in making their microcapsules biodegradable without changing their performance. This is a very interesting challenge, which will have a huge social impact and hopefully help to protect our environment from plastic accumulation. Therefore, we accept this challenge gladly and are trying our best to solve it.

Another common challenge is to find a holistic solution, which combines the most reasonable process, the best-performing encapsulating material, and the lowest possible price simultaneously. It is not always possible to solve this puzzle, but whenever we succeed, the  path to commercializing the product becomes considerably shorter.