Collaboration between nanoFAB and Micralyne underpinned by Alberta Innovates

For the past five years, two big players in Alberta's micro- and nanotechnology sector have been building a strong working relationship with the end goal of making the commercialization of nanotechnology research much easier, an objective they share with Alberta Innovates. They are the University of Alberta's nanoFAB , a national facility for nanoscale fabrication and characterization, and Micralyne Inc., an Edmonton company that builds nano-devices.

While their relationship is a long-standing one - dating back 20 years - the specific needs of entrepreneurial companies in this burgeoning high-tech sector have brought their collaboration into sharper focus. Case in point: a $3.4 million funding announcement in February. This new money (from the provincial and federal governments as well as Micralyne) is aimed at bridging the technical gap between what each organization offers.

NanoFAB director Eric Flaim (pictured left) explains: "NanoFAB has cutting edge research tools that are essential for developing innovative nanotechnology products. As a result, we're a hotbed of great ideas in the prototype stage. But how do entrepreneurs take these to the next level of manufacturing? If you want higher volume, you need to work with company like Micralyne. We're looking for synergies to support the commercialization of products coming out of nanoFAB and to help Micralyne attract clients."

NanoFAB is a key resource for Micralyne. "With the nanoFAB, we have access to tools that may evolve into important technology for commercial production," says Glen Fitzpatrick, Micralyne's chief scientific officer (pictured right). "For example, when deep reactive ion etching (DRIE) emerged as a useful technology for us, Micralyne used the nanoFab tool to develop process and device technology for our telecom customers. This led to the acquisition of two DRIE tools at Micralyne and generated over $80 million in production revenue over the last 15 years."

Both Flaim and Fitzpatrick credit Alberta Innovates with support for their organizations. For nanoFAB, provincial and federal funding were essential to its creation and support for infrastructure. For the past five years, Alberta Innovates has provided nanoFAB with an operational grant for staff salaries. The current year's support is $400,000.

A look at the numbers highlights the importance of this funding. The overall nanoFAB budget is $2.2 million/year with $1.4 million of that coming from user fees. The $400,000 from Alberta Innovates is the next big pool of support; remaining funding comes from the federal government (which is dependent on first getting provincial funding) and the University of Alberta.

"People sometimes question why we deserve money from the province," says Flaim. "The answer is simple: Alberta Innovates support translates into a 4.5x yearly return. Larger, when you factor in tangential industry developments. Without AI funding we couldn't operate and the loss of industry, academic and personnel development would be immense."

As a private company, Micralyne has benefited from a different kind of support from Alberta Innovates - the Industry Associates program (see below). It has been vital to attracting highly qualified personnel to the company to work on projects for Micralyne's diverse client base.

"It's important to celebrate these new developments in nanotechnology in Alberta and it's equally important to recognize how we got to this stage," notes nanoFAB's Flaim. "A lot of this activity has been underpinned by support from Alberta Innovates."

Supporting the best and brightest

Alberta-based Micralyne is one of the world's leading independent developers and manufacturers of micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) and micro-fabricated products. The company makes tiny electronic and moving components that are used in industries including telecommunications, biosystems, aerospace and automotive electronics/sensors.

Micralyne started out in 1982 as the Alberta Microelectronic Centre and was renamed when it became a private company in 2001. It now has 95 employees. "We've always had a commitment to pushing the envelope in developing unique MEMS and sensors," says Glen Fitzpatrick, Micralyne's Chief Scientific Officer. "Alberta Innovates' Industry Associates program has been central to our success in innovation because it's allowed us to bring on really bright people to work on challenging applications presented by our customers."

Since 2004, ten r&D Associates have worked for the company on a wide variety of projects. Many of these talented scientists and engineers have stayed on after the associateship ended, including Micralyne's very first r&D Associate, while others have been hired by prestigious international companies such as Apple and Knowles.

"Micralyne's capabilities are unique and the company's success is very important to the diversification of the Alberta economy," says Mike Riou, an Alberta Innovates Technology Development Advisor. "Micralyne has always been on the leading edge, perhaps now more than ever as nanotechnology combines with the Internet of Things and demand grows for smaller and smaller sensors. The strengths of Micralyne and nanoFAB ensure that Alberta has a foothold in this new sector with exciting applications and a way to commercialize them."