On an ambitious trial run 6000 metres beneath the ocean surface, a unique new holographic technology captures 3D images of life forms that are impossible to bring back up as live samples – the extreme pressure change would cause the organisms to explode. The photos prove certain forms of micro-plankton that exist at a depth of just two metres also live in the aquatic darkness six kilometres below.
While the oceanographic academic community can barely wrap their heads around the discovery, the oil and gas industry immediately starts to consider how the invention could monitor their underwater pipelines for leaks and assist undersea field exploration.
Unlike a traditional microscope, Resolution Optic's submersible system doesn't have lenses. It combines a laser light source with a pinhole and a digital camera. Organisms floating through the cone of light created by the pinhole are captured by the camera. Specially designed software then digitally reconstructs the three-dimensional image, in a lightning-fast 65 milliseconds, and sends the data back to a computer in real time.
Who gave the young company with the powerful submersible microscope the final push from academia to commercial marketplace? The Government of Canada.
Launched in 2010, the Canadian Innovation Commercialization Program (CICP) is a government initiative to bridge the pre-commercialization gap for businesses that have innovative goods and services. If you're Canadian, you can apply.
"It was important for us because it helped us develop our software," says Dr. Stephen Jones, CEO of Resolution Optics. "Prior to that it was designed for an academic research lab, but it wasn't designed for an industrial purpose. It needed to be less complicated."
The CICP targets innovations in four priority areas: the environment, safety and security, health and enabling technologies. Sweetening the deal, the government also organizes trade shows to help Canadian businesses showcase their innovative concepts to federal representatives.
When Resolution Optics applied for the acquisitions program, they had yet to introduce their holographic imaging technology to the open market. When the government kicked in $50,000, it was just what the company needed to get them over the final hurdle. It used half the money for equipment purchases, while the other half reimbursed time spent on the project. But according to Jones, CICP's domino effect was just beginning.
"It's given us validation of the technology, it's given us user feedback to generate commercially acceptable software, it's given us a comparison to our competitors and it's given us additional purchase orders."
Since the Department of Fisheries acquired a submersible system as part of the program, an oil group has purchased a device for themselves. Environment Canada is also interested in buying at least one. If that happens, Jones believes the Environmental Protection Agency in the US will be a likely customer.
As more buyers generate more user feedback, Resolution Optics is honing their innovation, taking the 3D microscope from fantastic deep-sea voyages to more prosaic issues like algae monitoring. Identifying concerns normally takes several days and lab verification, but soon people will be able to receive instant alerts on their mobile devices, allowing for much quicker reaction.
With the government officially on board as a customer, the entrepreneurship of Resolution Optics now has a proven business record. As the company continues to advance underwater exploration and monitoring, the world - with its seven seas, countless rivers and lakes - is their oyster.
A former broadcast journalist who has worked for CBS, ABC and CBC, Tiffany began covering financial news when she was based in Toronto, working for CityTV and Cable Pulse 24. The UBC graduate's career has seen her report on a wide variety of topics, including directing and producing a feature documentary about a controversial undercover police tactic, Mr. Big.
Besides her work for You Inc, Tiffany is also creative director for the fashion/lifestyle website Blue Besos. In between, she tries to find time to work on a novel about the TV news industry.
Her favourite interview ever was with cellist Yo Yo Ma.