Innovation nation

Companies from coast to coast are developing cutting-edge technologies that will change how we work, play and survive. Canada, meet your future.

Technological change is accelerating at a dizzying pace. The first commercially successful, mass-market personal computer arrived in 1977. Just 15 years later a PC could connect with other computers globally via the Internet, and today a networked, hand-held device has eliminated the need for dozens of traditional physical products ranging from cameras and stereos to credit cards and keys.

It’s been said that the first two decades of the 20th century brought as much technological progress as the entire previous century. Now, prognosticators suggest denizens of our century will experience as much technological disruption as humans of the previous 20,000 years combined.

Unknown individuals and companies working with obscure technologies will lead the charge. And some of those people and inventions will be from Canada. In the following pages, we introduce you to Canadian firms that are producing processes and products that promise to forever alter the way we grow, eat, work, connect, shop and preserve our planet. Meet the companies building our future today.

UNMANNED VEHICLES: from Earth to the stars

THE PROMISE

To boldly go where no robot has gone before — thereby automating the world’s dullest, dirtiest and deadliest jobs.

THE PURVEYORS

Started in 2009 by four University of Waterloo engineering students, Kitchener, Ont.’s Clearpath Robotics Inc. has become a global leader in unmanned vehicles. Its expertise is in mechatronics — a combination of mechanical, electronic, computer and systems design engineering — and it has developed technologies to facilitate mine mapping, harbour surveillance and the monitoring of tailings ponds in northern Alberta’s oilpatch.

Some 450 km north of Kitchener, Sudbury’s Deltion Innovations Ltd. is creating groundbreaking tools that are literally out of this world. It’s been working with the Canadian Space Agency and NASA to build drills for a mission to the South Pole of the moon that may occur as early as 2018.

THE PROSPECTS

Clearpath now has more than 75 employees and works in 30-plus countries with organizations including the Canadian Space Agency, the US Navy, Intel and Honda. Last July, it sold its thousandth robot. "The idea is, you graduate from school, you settle down, you get married, you buy your first house, you buy your first car and you buy your first robot," Clearpath cofounder Matt Rendall told the Waterloo Record this past November.

In the hopes of securing a trip on NASA’s Resource Prospector Mission, Deltion is perfecting an unmanned vehicle with a drill bit capable of extracting a core in a near vacuum in temperatures as low as -180°C. Elements rare on Earth can be plentiful on the moon or on asteroids, which are frequently rich in iron, nickel and cobalt and contain valuable trace elements, such as gold, platinum and rhodium.

BIOMETRICS: Unlocking our digital worlds

Nymi wearable biometric identity devices 

THE PROMISE

Forget about passwords, PINs and passports. Wearable biometric identity devices — which measure and analyze physical human characteristics such as facial patterns or retinas for personal authentication — will allow you to wirelessly confirm who you are to your tablet or phone to facilitate mobile payments, to check in for flights or at hotels, and even to cross international borders.

THE PURVEYOR

Toronto firm Nymi Inc. has created a bracelet that literally opens digital worlds for users. Sensors within its Nymi Band identify the complex electrical waveform distinct to each wearer’s heart by performing an electrocardiogram. Once the electrical pattern is registered it is encrypted and stored as a unique identifier. When a bracelet is removed, it is reactivated after remeasuring the user’s heart.

THE PROSPECTS

This past November, the three-year-old firm announced a partnership with Royal Bank and MasterCard to pilot biometrically authenticated payments. The following month it shipped its bracelets to developers to encourage them to create new applications for the technology. Consumers can preorder a band, but no word on when the firm will publicly launch the product.

SPECTROSCOPY: Shining a light on our food

TellSpec Food Sensor 

THE PROMISE

An inspector in a food-processing plant points her hand-held scanner at samples while a light beam checks for contamination. An aid worker uses the device to test for traces of a food-borne pathogen at a market in a refugee camp. A mother scans a tray of cookies at a party to ensure her daughter with nut allergies can safely share the treat. These scenarios may be realized in the near future using a Star Trek-style "tricorder" that detects calories, nutrients, ingredients, allergens and chemicals in food and beverages.

THE PURVEYOR

Toronto-based TellSpec Inc., founded in 2013 following a crowdfunding campaign that raised more than $385,000, is currently testing what would be the world’s first consumer food scanner, with a product launch expected later this year. Within the scanner is a spectrometer that measures changes in light when beams reflect back from an object. Those digital electronic signals, or spectra, identify chemical compounds specific to certain food components. The device transmits spectra wirelessly to a smartphone, where the information is processed, interpreted and displayed to the user.

THE PROSPECTS

The TellSpec Food Sensor is available for preorder at US$349. The company warns, however, that the scanner’s detection ability is currently limited to calories, macronutrients, ingredients, "some chemicals and some allergens, and only in simple [non-packaged] foods." Its ability to identify every ingredient or compound in a food will grow over time.

GESTURE CONTROL: The world in your hands

Myo gesture control armband 

THE PROMISE

When your PC was anchored to a desk, a mouse or track pad was a perfectly adequate tool for relaying commands. But the arrival of mobile devices and the expansion of computing into nearly every aspect of daily life necessitate better solutions — say, for example, using simple hand motions to control the volume on a stereo or advance a PowerPoint slide.

THE PURVEYOR

Thalmic Labs, founded in 2012 by three engineering grads from the University of Waterloo, wants to unleash the constraints of computer interaction and truly merge people with technology. Its Myo gesture control armband, launched last July, was one of 2014’s most anticipated wearable devices; more than 10,000 developers applied to create applications compatible with the product. The armband uses embedded sensors to monitor electrical signals in the user’s muscles and to track motion. That information allows the band to identify specific hand positions or movements to initiate actions on computers, phones and other devices.

THE PROSPECTS

Currently selling for US$199, Myo started its life among consumer electronics, but the company expects to venture into the realms of gaming, health, medicine, military, manufacturing and much more. "We’re interested in how we can use technology to enhance our abilities as humans — in short, giving us ‘superpowers,’" says Stephen Lake, cofounder and CEO of Thalmic Labs. Indeed, the company is partnering with San Francisco’s Augmedix to help doctors record medical data during patient exams and is in other trials to help surgeons access medical images while operating.

FUSION ENERGY: Sun worship

Photo of the sun 

THE PROMISE

Nothing short of creating the sun on Earth to power our world. Fusion mimics the process that fuels the sun whereby hydrogen nuclei collide, fuse into helium atoms and produce energy that costs less per kilowatt than coal. It creates no pollution or greenhouse gases and, unlike nuclear fission, generates no radioactive waste. Fusion offers a sustainable, safe and secure energy future. Problem is, outside of the lab, it doesn’t work — yet.

THE PURVEYOR

The biggest fusion projects are multibillion-dollar government efforts employing thousands, but Burnaby, BC-based General Fusion believes its staff of 60-plus is better suited to producing what it calls the "fastest, most practical and lowest-cost path to commercial fusion power." Investors (including Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos), who have sunk US$55 million into the firm, agree. They’re betting on the company’s Magnetized Target Fusion system, in which firing pistons produce a shock wave that heats gas (plasma) contained by magnets inside a three-metre sphere to a temperature exceeding 150 million C. Molten lead, super-heated by the resulting fusion reaction, is then pumped through a heat exchanger to produce steam that spins turbines, similar to a standard gas- or coal-powered generating station.

THE PROSPECTS

Founded in 2002, the company has tested core components of the technology and hopes to begin building a prototype this year that leads to a commercial reactor in 2020. General Fusion continues to follow the sun.

VISUAL SEARCH: Eye on the prize

 Pounce app

THE PROMISE

You’re walking down the street and see someone wearing a pair of shoes you simply must have. You pull out your smartphone, take a photo and immediately see the brand and style — or something very similar — for purchase with a single click.

THE PURVEYOR

That’s the reality of Slyce’s intelligent image recognition software — what it calls the "want engine." Launched in 2012, the Toronto-based firm developed visual search technology for Neiman Marcus that the luxury department store’s chief marketing officer proclaimed will "revolutionize the [retail] industry." This past November, Slyce released an app called Pounce featuring the same "snap and buy" experience as the Neiman Marcus app, but linked to North America’s largest big box stores.

THE PROSPECTS

Slyce has raised $28 million and is currently active with six of the top 20 retailers in the world, including Wal-Mart, Target and Best Buy. Last June, it partnered with Screenvision, a US in-cinema marketing firm, to develop apps that would, for instance, allow moviegoers to purchase items they’ve just seen on screen with their smartphones. Other potential applications include educational enrichment, such as the identification of plants and animals, or accessing information on real estate offerings. With Slyce and other visual search technologies, the eyes really have it.

VERTICAL FARMING: Growing up

Commercial cubic farming 

THE PROMISE

Agriculture nestled in cities or other nonarable locales offering lower labour and energy costs, requiring 94% less water usage than conventional farming and yields hundreds of times greater than traditional farms. How? By growing up, instead of growing out.

THE PURVEYOR

Urban Barns Foods Inc. opened what it calls the world’s first commercial Cubic Farm last June in Mirabel, Que., and expects to cultivate 475 heads of lettuce in an area where most farms would produce fewer than two. Its flagship barn just outside of Montreal raises basil, lettuce and other assorted herbs and greens from seed on vertical conveyor belts that rotate through a controlled environment providing water, heat, carbon dioxide and a specialized LED light system to maximize size and quality. "Whether I’m growing it here or in Australia or Saudi Arabia, it’s the exact same plant," says Mark Lefsrud, an associate professor of bioresource engineering at McGill University and a collaborator with Urban Barns. "We don’t need to use any of the synthetic pesticides, herbicides, [or] chemicals that most field-based operations and some greenhouses do."

THE PROSPECTS

In March, Urban Barns began to supply select Montreal-area Sobeys supermarkets with produce and by the end of this year hopes to expand to Quebec City, Ottawa, Toronto and select US markets.

Made in Canada, Eh?

We have a long history of giving birth to revolutionary products and processes — including the following items Canadian individuals and firms have helped develop.

1853: Steam fog horn

1874: Lightbulb

1876: Telephone

1879: Standard time

1892: Electric oven

1894: Caulking gun

1906: AM radio

1909: Robertson screw

1922: Insulin as diabetes treatment

1925: Snowblower

1930: Pablum

1931: Plexiglas

1932: Easy-off oven cleaner

1938: Self-propelled combine harvester

1938: Electron microscope

1939: Wonderbra

1940: Paint roller

1941: Anti-gravity G-suit

1942: Walkie-Talkie

1948: Electronic music synthesizer

1948: Jolly Jumper

1949: Pager

1949: External pacemaker

1950: Green garbage bag

1950: Cobalt-60 ("cobalt bomb") cancer treatment

1954: Electric wheelchair

1954: Alkaline battery

1955: Instant replay

1957: Retractable beer carton handle

1959: Hockey goalie mask

1959: Ski-Doo

1959: Crash position indicator

1962: Instant mashed potatoes

1968: IMAX

1971: Electric prosthetic hand

1974: Key frame computer animation

1981: Canadarm

1985: Explosives vapour detector

1991: Java programming language

1999: BlackBerry

2010: High-pressure direct injection natural gas diesel engine

2011: First commercially available quantum computer

About the Author

Steve Brearton


Steve Brearton is a freelance writer in Toronto.

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