May 7, 2020

Nanotechnology platform comes to industry

  • This is the fifth in a series of five articles.

    Showcasing how the EBA program and other Alberta Innovates services are helping different Alberta companies in their journey.

A photo of Interface Fluidics company Founders L to R - (David Sinton Tom de Haas Stuart Kinnear) with mountains in the background.
Interface Fluidics company Founders L to R – (David Sinton, Tom de Haas, and Stuart Kinnear)

Up until now, it’s been customary for oil and natural gas companies to rely on core flooding, using rock samples from the reservoir, to gather data to guide well production. This traditional method works but it’s costly and time-consuming. Now Alberta startup Interface Fluidics is hoping to change this, with a step-change nanotechnology platform that promises to provide operators or chemical companies with a new type of visual data that helps them make strong, strategic completions decisions.

Headquartered in Calgary, Interface operates a specialized lab in Edmonton at the National Institute for Nanotechnology.  Here, using microfluidic devices, staff recreate the high temperature, high pressure conditions of a well. Staff test different downhole chemical products, collecting fluid data in real time through microscopes and cameras. The results help companies to rapidly find the right product for each reservoir before applying them in the field.

“We’ve basically created a reservoir-on-a-chip system,” says Tom de Haas, the company’s chief operating officer. The new technology, he adds, delivers quality production data in days, instead of months, and at a fraction of the cost, compared to traditional methods.

A photo of Interface's porous media chip.
Interface’s porous media chip

Nanotechnology based on microfluidics

For de Haas, the idea for the technology originated in 2013 while researching microfluidics (the study of fluids at a micro-scale) for his master’s degree at the University of Toronto. After moving to Calgary and working as a reservoir engineer at Suncor Energy, in 2015 he approached Stuart Kinnear, a business analyst at Canadian Natural Resources, with his idea. Together they saw the potential for the microfluidics technology to change the way the industry collects production data.

To check interest, in early 2016 they commissioned a market assessment with funding support from Alberta Innovates. The results came back overwhelmingly positive.

“There was a real need in the market for what we planned to do,” says de Haas, who co-founded Interface in partnership with Kinnear as CEO and Dr. David Sinton, a leading microfluidics expert at the University of Toronto, as chief technology officer. From 2015-19, Sinton’s microfluidic research at University of Toronto was partially supported by a predecessor of Alberta Innovates. The impact of that investment has materialized for Alberta by having Interface Fluidics using that technology to help oil and gas activity in Alberta and worldwide.

A photo of Interface's Chief Operating Officer Tom de Haas,
Tom de Haas, chief operating officer

Support from local innovation network

To take their idea forward, the team in early 2016 reached out to the local innovation network for help. They received mentoring from Startup Calgary. Technology development advisors at Alberta Innovates provided micro voucher funding to enable the team to test and develop their technology.

In 2017, Alberta Innovates approved a Campus Alberta Small Business Engagement grant for the company to work with the University of Alberta’s Dr. Hongbo Zeng. They needed Zeng’s expertise in intermolecular and surface forces to investigate ways to better mimic the rock-fluid reservoir characteristics

With the backing of the National Research Council, Interface also set up shop at the National Institute for Nanotechnology on the University of Alberta campus.

In the same year, the team closed their first deals, running microfluidics tests for major oil sands players Cenovus Energy and Suncor Energy.  After a sales trip to Houston, they also discovered a new market for their technology among U.S. shale producers. Two years later, in 2018, they took part in the Oslo-based Techstars Energy Program, building connections at the international level.

Things were happening quickly for Interface. To grow further, the company’s founders would need additional capital.

In February 2019 they joined Alberta Innovates’ Executive Business Advisor (EBA) program. In collaboration with Juan Benitez, a local EBA and now venture partner at BDC Venture Capital, they reviewed their investor materials and honed their message.

This effort paid off, with the company raising US$4.5 million in August 2019, with funding from multinational energy company Equinor and global accelerator Techstars.

Serving upstream and chemicals companies worldwide

Today the company has grown to 30 employees and is now providing microfluidics testing to more than a dozen upstream and chemicals companies worldwide. These include Equinor in Norway, Total in France, Petroleum Development Oman and Saudi Aramco in the Middle East, as well as Suncor and Cenovus in Calgary.

In recent weeks the company has had to slow activity, with its lab temporarily closed and staff working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite these challenges, de Haas says the company remains strongly optimistic about its growth plans. With micro voucher funding from Alberta Innovates, the company is already exploring a new application of its technology. “We’ve been fortunate in our journey to have had great support from Alberta Innovates and others in the innovation ecosystem. That support has made a critical difference.”

Read part one of our five-part series on how Alberta Innovates helps Alberta companies bridge the gap to growth and success: Helping companies grow and succeed