Monday, March 12, 2018

Medbotics & Carbon Engineering: Canada's Tech Sector is Rising from Its Own Ashes

          By Brian Orlotti

In recent weeks, as the Trump Administration sparked fears of a global trade war by imposing new steel and aluminum tariffs, then exempting Canada and Mexico only on the condition of a “good” outcome on current North American Free Trade (NAFTA) negotiations, the need for growing Canada’s own tech sector has never been more apparent.

Ironically, two such new firms are spin-offs of a Canadian tech firm that has all but shed its Canadian identity.

The first firm, Insight Medbotics Canada Corporation (IMCC) was formed by the Centre for Surgical Invention and Innovation (CSII), a federally-funded Canadian Centre of Excellence working in partnership with Richmond, BC based MDA Corp (a subsidiary of San Francisco, CA based Maxar Technologies) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

IMCC’s goal is to launch a new generation of intelligent robotics which build on Canadian technology used in the Canadarm, Canadarm 2 and Dextre robots.

Its first device, the Image Guided Automated Robotics-Breast (IGAR-Breast) imager, is designed for detection and treatment of breast cancer in it’s earliest stages.  IGAR integrates with magnetic resonance imaging systems, enabling a radiologist to select a target area from a patient’s scan and remove  cancerous tissue with millimeter accuracy. In addition to the technology’s obvious applications in space, IGAR will also provide patients in remote communities greater access to advanced healthcare.

IMCC is led by Paul Cooper, who is also listed as being the vice president of strategic development at MDA. Cooper, in addition to holding a Ph.D. in Computer Science, is a former entrepreneur and university professor. He sits on the board of Family Outreach and Response, a community mental health serves organization in Toronto, ON.

Incorporated in Hamilton, ON in 2016, IMCC is working to establish its manufacturing base and sales and marketing operations in Southern Ontario. The company expects to create over 100 high tech jobs over the next five years.

The second firm is Squamish, BC-based Carbon Engineering (CE), founded in 2009.

CE’s primary business is ‘Air to Fuels.’ This technology extracts carbon dioxide from Earth’s atmosphere and combines it with hydrogen to synthesize currently-used transportation fuels such as diesel, gasoline and Jet-A.

Because Air to Fuels uses hydrogen produced with renewable energy as well as existing atmospheric CO2, it is a means of mass producing fuels for existing infrastructure with little or no fossil carbon emissions.

CE’s MDA alumni include former MDA CEO Dan Friedmann, who now acts as CE's chairman of the board and former MDA SVP of strategic business development Steve Oldham who, as outlined in the January 11th, 2018 CE press release, "Carbon Engineering Announces Leadership Transition," took over as CE's chief executive officer on February 5th, 2018.

Parallels can be found between MDA and another former Canadian tech giant; Blackberry, formerly Research in Motion (RIM). Just as RIM’s decline and various bloodletting's freed vast amounts of technical talent to launch new innovative firms, so to has MDA’s decline seeded new players.

United States trade representative Robert Lighthizer looks on as President Donald Trump signs an executive order at the White House in January. The March 12th, 2018 Toronto Star post, "Trump exposes free trade as a failed policy for Canada," is a reminder to all Canadian's, especially our space agency (with its preference for building components used by the space agencies of other countries but with no interest in developing complete programs of specific use to Canada), that we might want to broaden our capabilities if we don't want to be left behind.  Photo c/o Doug Mills / NYT.

Out of its decline, Canada’s tech sector could prove to be a Phoenix rising from its own ashes.

As Canada is under threat of being discarded by its old ally to the south and facing an uncertain new world, Canadians can take comfort in the fact that we can adapt...when we choose to.

But much work lies ahead.
Brian Orlotti.

Brian Orlotti is a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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