Portraits of Innovation: Vive Crop Protection & Opalux

July 18, 2016 by Mandy Koroniak

Two of Chemistry’s great entrepreneurial success stories turn 10 this year: Vive Crop Protection and Opalux. Both are founded on innovations from Chemistry, and are poised to make big impacts in their respective fields. Vive Crop Protection develops targeted delivery systems for pesticide active ingredients and Opalux uses tunable photonic crystals to create optically variable materials geared to security applications.

When Darren Anderson (PhD 2006) first spun out what is now Vive Crop Protection with Chemistry colleagues Prof. Cynthia Goh, Jordan Dinglasan, Jane Goh, Richard Loo, and Gwynn Curran-Sills, they set out to commercialize a technology with the potential for creating a range of useful materials based on nanoscale polymer particles. Back then, the company was called Northern Nanotechnologies, which, says Anderson, “is the type of name that you get when chemists name companies.”

Fast forward a decade, and Northern Nanotechnologies has been rebranded Vive Crop Protection, highlighting it’s focus on the agricultural sector, where they have just launched two products in the U.S. They have developed an encapsulation system for the targeted delivery of fertilizer and crop protection products (fungicide or pesticide) together right into the furrow where seeds are planted.

To explain the value of this technology, Anderson likens the farm to the human body. “If you have a problem with your heart, and you’re taking heart medication, you want that medication to be targeted to go to your heart. If its going elsewhere to your body, then any of that drug that's going elsewhere is wasted. It's not being effective, and it can cause side effects,” he explains. “We’re doing this in agriculture. We're targeting where and how active ingredients interact with things in the environment.” Vive Crop Protection’s targeted delivery system means that the active ingredients reach the right place and are more effective and useful to the farmer, while also decreasing the environmental effects associated with these products going places where they shouldn’t.

Importantly, the encapsulation system also allows them to deliver both fertilizer and crop protection products simultaneously, something which is not possible with 98% of conventional products on the market today. Right now these products have only been released to the U.S. market, but Vive Crop Protection is working towards approval in Canada and expects to launch products here in a few years.

Vive Crop Protection owes not only its genesis but also a great deal of support for its growth to the Chemistry department: the technology on which their products are built was developed at the University of Toronto, and Anderson, who completed his PhD under Prof. Cynthia Goh, also notes that the company wouldn’t exist if not for her unique programming surrounding entrepreneurship. Once the company was established, they were also incubated within Chemistry and for a time rented space in the department.

Today, Vive Crop Protection has outgrown the space in Chemistry, but still maintains a close relationship with the University. They have 38 staff and 3 facilities: a head office in downtown Toronto, a facility in Guelph where they undertake early stage biological testing, and a lab at the Banting and Best Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. “We’ve been really fortunate,” says Anderson, “and while entrepreneurship has worked out really well for me, my view is also that I’ve learned an incredible amount.”

While Anderson’s interest in entrepreneurship was somewhat self-driven, it took a bit of convincing for André Arsenault (PhD 2006). In 2006 he was completing his PhD under Prof. Geoff Ozin, and envisioned an academic career ahead. He had a postdoc lined up with Chad Mirkin at Northwestern, and had been awarded an NSERC Postdoctoral Fellowship. But the technology he’d been working on during his PhD was just too promising.

Arsenault conducted his PhD research on tunable photonic crystals, and was focused on incorporating active tunable materials into the photonic structures to make them responsive to stimuli. This work built on several decades of research that eventually resulted in the synthesis of the first complete three-dimensional photonic bandgap material by a team led by Ozin, Sajeev John, and Henry van Driel. After initial excitement about potential optical applications was quashed, Ozin realized that the true promise of these materials lay in their ability to change colour. With Arsenault on board for a PhD, they set to developing electrically and chemically tunable photonic crystals.

By the end of his doctorate, Arsenault had recognized the commercial possibilities of tunable photonic crystals, and his PhD thesis won the NSERC Innovation Challenge Award, the top prize for theses with commercially relevant research. He spun out Opalux with Ozin and entrepreneur Paul Chan, and has spent the last decade developing four innovative products: OpalPrint, Elastink, Photonic Ink, and Photonic Nose.

OpalPrint and Elastink have clear security applications. OpalPrint looks something like a personalized hologram. Patterned by laser, OpalPrint applies different colours to a material that shift when you tilt the document to which it’s been applied. Instead of applying a generic hologram image to a passport, for example, elements such as the portrait, signature, and other personalized aspects can be made optically variable. Elastink is the basis of a security product for paper banknotes. The product can be used as a type of security thread, and will change in response to mechanical stimuli, so that its appearance will change when compressed or scratched, making it an interactive, and easy-to-use security feature.

Photonic Ink, or P-Ink, is an electrically tunable material. Imagine a surface that can change colour by adjusting a dial. Placed under an electrode, it’s colour changes depending on the amount of voltage applied, and can span the full rainbow of colours. Arsenault envisions a day when you might change the colour of your car, or it’s interior elements, using this technology.

Finally, Photonic Nose is a chemically sensitive material that changes colour when exposed to a certain environment. Applications for this material include biodiagnostics, counterfeit detection, and the detection of food freshness. Using the Photonic Nose technology, Arsenault can differentiate between fresh salmon kept in the refrigerator for 1, 2, and 3 days. 

Opalux spent several years developing these four technologies, with much of that time spent right in the Department of Chemistry. Opalux still maintains labs in the building, including lab space built just for them.

Several companies around the world are now evaluating and testing their OpalPrint materials, so Arsenault hopes to soon have this technology appear on the market.

Vive Crop Protection and Opalux are just two entrepreneurial successes to emerge from Chemistry. Other startups to come from Chemistry’s labs and alumni include:

Acanthus Research Inc. (Ewa & John Tobin, Kresge & Friesen groups) 

Axela Inc. (Goh group) 

Attodyne Inc. (Miller group) 

Avicena Group (Belinda Tsao-Nivaggioli, Kluger group) 

Chrysalis Innovations Corp. (Goh group) 

Dalton Pharma Services (Peter Pikos, Yates group & Natalie Lazarowych, Morris group) 

Diaminopharm (Chin group) 

Digital Chemicals (Ravi Gukathasan, Farrar & Morris groups) 

DVS Sciences (acquired by Fluidigm, Winnik group) 

Econous Systems Inc. (Thompson group) 

Encycle Therapeutics (Yudin group) 

Femtonics (Miller group) 

FlowJEM (Kumacheva group) 

GeneOhm Sciences (acquired by BD, Kelley group)

H T Biotechnology Ltd. (Wing-Cheog Tsui, Kluger group) 

Hammock Pharmaceuticals (Shoichet group) 

Kapplex, Inc. (acquired by Miroculus, Wheeler group) 

Phantin (Goh group) 

Proteorex (Batey group) 

Sciventions (Goh group) 

SJ&E (Goh group) 

Sylleta (Walker group) 

Toronto Research Chemicals (David Dime, McLean group) 

TREVENTIS Corp. (Weaver group) 

UNS-Tech (Dhirani group) 

Viable Solutions (McMillen group) 

Xagenic Inc. (Kelley group)