October 14, 2020

How Susanne Riegel turned a troubled thesis project into a new opportunity with an innovative start-up

Susanne Riegel – Photo Supplied
Susanne Riegel
Director of Marketing and NMR Product Manager, Nanalysis

The Investmest: Alberta Innovates Graduate Student Scholarship and Len Bolger Memorial Scholarship for Energy Research Excellence, totaling $77,167 over three years.
The Impact: Riegel’s expertise contributed to the rapid growth of Calgary-based company Nanalysis and has inspired science students to explore new career options.

A self-described small-town girl from Alberta, Susanne Riegel has already had a remarkable career and made a lasting impression on the province. After earning a Masters in Phosporous Chemistry at Dalhousie University, Riegel was interested in exploring a more practical subject matter. She considered several options, but she was ultimately lured back to her home province thanks to funding from Alberta Innovates, receiving both a Graduate Student Scholarship and the prestigious Len Bolger Memorial Scholarship for Energy Research Excellence.

Back at the University of Calgary, where she completed her bachelor’s degree, Riegel studied metal catalyzed water splitting under the supervision of renowned Organometallic Chemist, Professor Warren Piers. Her doctoral project focused on understanding the thermodynamics of converting water into hydrogen and water in an energetically and economically feasible way, which would have potential applications for hydrogen-powered vehicles.

But as is not uncommon in ambitious projects, “it did not go well,” Riegel deadpans. “Basically, I spent most of my time in front of the NMR spectrometer trying to figure out what was happening in my reactions.”

An NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance) spectrometer is “like an MRI for chemists instead of for doctors.” It uses the same physical principle to develop a spectrum that can be used for structure elucidation or quantification. It is essential for research chemists in many fields of study, oil and gas, pharmaceuticals, materials science, personal care and cosmetics, pulp and paper and many more. Little did she know at the time was that this research was training her for her next opportunity.

An Alberta Innovates-funded graduate joins an Alberta Innovates-funded company

While Riegel was completing her thesis, a former colleague attended a presentation from Nanalysis, a Calgary-based start-up, and thought Riegel might be a good fit. The company, which has also received funding from Alberta Innovates, was in the process of developing a portable NMR spectrometer and was looking for someone to develop novel applications and market the product. Riegel’s hours of hands on experience had given her an intimate knowledge of the technique and its applications, and that was exactly what Nanalysis needed.

Riegel initially joined the company in 2012, leveraging her understanding of complex, multinuclear NMR spectroscopy, her interest in marketing and business, and her love of photography and graphics design to grow into a role of Directors in Marketing and Product Manager. Nanalysis’ spectrometer is smaller, more affordable, and requires less significantly maintenance than a traditional instrument like the one that she used at the University of Calgary. The device was initially targeted towards the academic teaching market, but Riegel’s passion for practical science led her to identify emerging markets and help grow this Alberta start-up company into a market-leading, award-winning global provider of benchtop NMR.

NMR spectroscopy is enormously useful for companies undertaking research and development, and the applications are nearly endless. It can help pharmaceutical companies identify medicinal ingredients and allow cannabis producers to accurately pinpoint the cannabinoids in their products. There are further opportunities in oil and gas, mining and defense. She traveled the globe, providing training and seminars, and helping companies successfully adopt the portable NMR technology. Her expertise enabled her to develop suitable value propositions for a wide variety of industries, helping grow the name of not only benchtop NMR, but also of Nanalysis. The company is now publicly listed and employs more than 70 people.  

Inspiring a new generation of scientists

In addition to her work at Nanalysis, Riegel now sits on the board of directors of NanoCanada. The organization is focused on catalyzing the commercialization of materials, quantum and nanotechnology innovations for a wide network of Canadian companies, helping to increase their reach and economic impact worldwide.

Riegel’s experience has also allowed her to help the next generation. “At conferences and universities, people always want me to come talk to graduating students about alternative careers in chemistry,” she says. “Unlike law or medicine, in science you don’t necessarily have a set career path. If you don’t want to go into academia, it’s not necessarily clear what you’re qualified to do.”

As Riegel points out, the skills that students learn through scientific research are highly adaptable. “It’s an exercise in creativity, problem-solving and perseverance. Those are skills that are required in a start-up company.” Her journey helps chart a path for today’s science students to make their own impact, and the growth of companies like Nanalysis means an increased number of local job opportunities for them to pursue.

This story is part of our October feature on Women in Innovation. See our related stories below.