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Edmonton nanotech to provide better, more reliable COVID testing

| Sherri Bouslama |
Dr. David Antoniuk, P.Eng. is the CEO of Applied Quantum Materials Inc.

Applied Quantum Materials (AQM), a local nanotechnology firm has reached an agreement with Alberta Health Services (AHS) to provide nucleic acid extraction kits for use in the province’s COVID-19 testing program. AQM is a world leader in the research, development and synthesis of nanoparticles for a broad range of applications including sensors, energy, semiconductor lithography and bio-diagnostics. Prior to COVID, AQM’s focus was on delivering products to international customers for a wide scope of uses – biotechnology was just one of many sectors that benefits from their technology. But the pandemic saw them pivot their operations to focus on the immediate needs they saw developing in the health system. According to AQM CEO, Dr. David Antoniuk, while it took some time to secure the contract with AHS, developing the extraction kits was straightforward.

“When we first heard that AHS and Alberta Precision Labs were having trouble securing a stable supply of the reagents needed to keep up with the testing that was happening, I said to my team, ‘We know how to do this – let’s do it,’” said David. “We set to work developing the first iteration and it was ready for testing within a couple months.”

After the initial attempt it was just a matter of refining to get the best product possible. “In the end, we developed a high-quality product that was superior to the ones that AHS had been securing from international vendors,” said David. “The products they were using was based on 20 year old technology. We came at the problem with the most up to date technological advances in nanotechnology and built a product that is better quality and more effective. Essentially, our beads are far more sensitive, reducing false negatives, and making the COVID test more accurate. It’s a win-win situation. AQM can deliver a more reliable supply of a more effective product.” Applied Quantum Materials (AQM) is the first local company to secure a contract with AHS to supply these kits. By sourcing these products locally, AHS will not only have a much better overall product, but they will also have a more stable and secure supply chain.

Dr. Mori Javadi, Director of Scientific Product Development developed the MagDx nanoparticles

Development of AQM’s nucleic acid testing products was also supported through advisory services and research and development funding from the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC IRAP). Going forward, AQM plans to make use of the Business and Scale-up Program offered by Western Diversification to expand production capacity. 

David believes there is room to scale AQM’s existing capacity to supply all of Canada with the reagents needed to support the testing being done. He sees a lot of potential for applications of nanotechnology in the life sciences sector. Beyond testing for other diseases, David points to other initiatives that AQM is already involved in, like providing quantum dots for a pharma company that is using photo light therapy for anti-aging masks and wound healing. Or another project where they are seeking final FDA approval on a product they’ve developed to place alignment marks on interocular lenses for patients with cataracts. 

AQM also produces silicon quantum dots, a photoluminescent semiconductor that are key to other potential medical products. Seen here under ultraviolet light.

“Nanotechnology supports a lot of the initiatives that exist to diversify our economy,” said David. “A great example is clean tech. Clean tech doesn’t exist without nanotechnology.”

In fact, AQM has developed a clean energy innovation called luminescent solar concentrators which essentially turns windows into power generating units. 

According to David, the Edmonton region’s strength in nanotechnology is one of our best kept secrets. Alberta developed a nanotechnology strategy more than 20 years ago and the infrastructure that exists here as a result, make it a great place to build a company like AQM. In 2001, the National Research Council established a national nanotechnology lab at the University of Alberta. 

“The University of Alberta has world-leading nanofabrication facilities and researchers,” said David. “And back when we started, we were the world leaders in this type of technology. People were coming from all over the world to learn from what we were doing here. My team benefits from having access to these great facilities.”

This infrastructure means that the Edmonton region has the ability to continue to be a world leader in nanotechnology.

“A steady rotation of interns from the universities and polytechnics provide AQM with a distinct advantage,” says AQM CEO, David Antoniuk

According to David, the post-secondary institutions in the region also produce a reliable supply of talent in this area. 

“We have a steady rotation of interns coming out of the universities and polytechnics,” said David. “And we’ve built an excellent and dedicated team. Many students start as interns with AQM and eventually graduate into permanent positions with our organization – it’s a great system for us. These former interns are already familiar with the work we are doing at AQM and are ready to hit the ground running with us.  Unfortunately, there are many students who graduate with their Master’s or PhDs, and there aren’t enough jobs available to support them. Many are having to leave the province to find work in their field.”

AQM started as a spin-off company from the University of Alberta when David realized the potential for commercializing some of the work that was being done out of the Department of Chemistry. David had been active in the nanotech sector in Alberta for some time. His previous role with the Government of Alberta as the Director of Nanotechnology meant he had an in depth understanding of the regional strengths that existed. When he was contacted by a researcher in Finland that was trying to source nanomaterials, David knew we had the capabilities in our region to supply the type of products they were looking for. 

“After that, it became a question of doing a market assessment and figuring out what else we could commercialize,” said David. “Since then, we’ve grown to establish contracts to supply some of the biggest MNEs in the world – from a wide array of sectors. We now supply products to over 100 clients in 20 countries.”

Learn more about the life sciences sector in the Edmonton region

Learn more about the supporting infrastructure for nanotechnology in the Edmonton region here

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