Sensing success: Queen’s-NanoFab Kingston student project leads to international business award

Spectra Plasmonics team (from left), Yusuf Ahmed, Malcolm Eade, Christian Baldwin, Tyler Whitney and Ryan Picard. (Photo: James McLellan)

Sept. 15, 2017

A novel, portable chemical detection device developed by Queen’s University graduate students with the help of NanoFabrication Kingston (NFK) has resulted in a prestigious international business award for the startup company that is commercializing the technology.

Competing in Singapore in September, Spectra Plasmonics won the Lee Kuan Yew Global Business Plan Competition, placing first in a field of 550 international competitors. The prize includes $125,000 in cash and an offer of $100,000 in venture funding, as well as legal, corporate and marketing assistance.

PhD candidates Hannah Dies and Josh Raveendran, creators of the sensing technology.

The company’s device, designed and fabricated by PhD candidates Hannah Dies and Josh Raveendran, under the supervision of Professors Aris Docoslis and Carlos Escobedo of Queen’s Dept. of Chemical Engineering, enables rapid, inexpensive and highly sensitive detection of chemicals without the need for expensive laboratory facilities or specialized staff.

The students’ project was one of the first brought to NanoFabrication Kingston’s Innovation Park lab, a $5 million facility that opened in 2015.  NFK is a partnership between Queen’s University and CMC Microsystems, which manages NFK.

Staff at NFK and CMC trained the students and Spectra to operate the facility’s highly specialized nanofabrication equipment and then provided expertise and trouble-shooting to help them create the metal-coated chip that forms the basis of their sensing technology, says Graham Gibson, Lab Operations Manager.

Using the chip with an ultrasensitive chemical detection method called Surface-Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy (SERS) on samples spiked with melamine, thiram (a fungicide) and cocaine, the inventors were able to detect the contaminants at extremely low levels.

Their patent-pending device has applications in pharmaceutical development, food safety and drug detection, among others.

“The students brought their design to us because they couldn’t effectively make the chips anywhere else on campus,” Dr. Gibson explains. “Their idea required sophisticated manufacturing on an extremely small scale. We helped them to fabricate the chips and develop and optimize the nanomanufacturing process. It gave the students hands-on, advanced nanomanufacturing experience while producing an innovative technology with commercial potential.”

“We’re thrilled for Hannah and Josh,” he adds. “It’s wonderful to see their work recognized, and it’s rewarding to see how our facilities and expertise helped them to bring their idea to life.”

“NanoFabrication Kingston has played a central role in the discovery of some very exciting chemical phenomena,” says Ryan Picard, Chief Technology Officer, Spectra Plasmonics. “We are fortunate to have the expertise of CMC in our backyard. It’s a huge value-add for institutions and businesses in the area, and we plan on making the most of it. Everything matters when you’re a start-up, and dependability on the sub-micron scale is our business.”

NanoFab Kingston will continue to assist Spectra with R&D as it advances its product towards market readiness, while also ensuring that the knowledge gained is shared more broadly, Dr. Gibson says. “This project has also resulted in a useful fabrication process, operating procedures and a user guide, which will be made available to other NFK users as well as investigators across Canada’s National Design Network.”

Graham Gibson
Lab Operations Manager
P: 613. 530. 4786

About NanoFabrication Kingston:
NanoFabrication Kingston (NFK) is a collaboration between Queen’s University, Innovation Park and CMC Microsystems, providing researchers and industry with access to leading-edge equipment, methodologies, and expertise for designing and prototyping microsystems and nanotechnologies.