'Innovation to market': Program focusing on training PhDs, post-doctoral scholars to become corporate innovators

Oct 13th, 2020

By Jeff Green

From left are Dr. Michael Katz, Devon McGrath and Dr. Paula Mendon�§a. Photo by Rich Blenkinsopp.
'Innovation to market': Program focusing on training PhDs, post-doctoral scholars to become corporate innovators

Devon McGrath grew up in rural Nova Scotia with business in his blood.

Now the PhD student in the Faculty of Science is learning how to take his passion for entrepreneurship to the next level.

Mr. McGrath is among those selected for Lab2Market, a team-based, experiential learning program focused on training PhDs and post-doctoral scholars to become future corporate innovators.

Unique partnership

Memorial is one of only three universities in Canada currently offering the program.

Here, the focus is on ocean technology-related research. The program is being offered as part of the Ocean Startup Project.

“I always had a love for science and the environment.”— Devon McGrath

Each Lab2Market team consists of a graduate student or post-doctoral scholar (entrepreneurial lead), their supervisor (technical lead) and a mentor (industry lead). Teams have access to $15,000 in funding to help researchers explore the commercial potential of their work.

“My parents own and operate two small businesses,” said Mr. McGrath. “Their hard work and dedication really inspired my participation in the Lab2Market Oceans program.

“I always had a love for science and the environment, so when the opportunity arose to work on a project that used chemistry to make a positive impact on the environment, I jumped. I am now entering my fifth year of my PhD and I am hoping to make my final year of research the best one yet.”

Mr. McGrath is completing his research under the co-supervision of Dr. Michael Katz, assistant professor, and Dr. Cora Young, adjunct professor, in the Department of Chemistry.

Industry focus

Mr. McGrath’s research focuses on the synthesis and application of a novel class of porous materials – metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) – for the removal and destruction of atmospheric pollutants.

“A jack-of-all-trades, Devon built an instrument capable of making nitrous acid gas.”— Dr. Michael Katz

He’s exploring their uses in “cleaning up” both indoor and outdoor air. He wants to use MOFs to convert air pollutants into harmless products, making significant advances over existing technology.

“Specifically, for the Lab2Market Oceans program we are looking at the implementation of these materials into marine vessel exhaust scrubbing systems for removing post-combustion atmosphere-bound pollutants,” Mr. McGrath explained.

“Materials like ours can hopefully help the marine industry operate their vessels below regulatory emission guidelines, resulting in less service interruptions and cleaner exhaust gas.”

‘Chemistry in context’

The roots of Mr. McGrath’s research began as a “hallway conversation” between Drs. Katz, Young and Trevor VandenBoer, a former Banting postdoctoral fellow.

Mr. McGrath helped expand that work when he began studying at Memorial.

“We started with the idea, ‘Can we sense nitrous acid?’” Dr. Katz explained. “A jack-of-all-trades, Devon built an instrument capable of making nitrous acid gas. Then he had to learn how to characterize the adsorption process and a whole slew of characterization techniques to put the chemistry in context.”

“Memorial plays a critical role in fostering and supporting innovation.”— Dr. Paula Mendonça

During this time, Dr. Katz also connected with the Technology Transfer and Commercialization Office.

“With support from Springboard Atlantic, we were able to take this hallway discussion and patent it in September of 2019,” he noted, adding TTCO staff members Dr. Paula Mendonça, director of innovation and entrepreneurship, and Kara Strickland, intellectual property officer, have been in their “corner” from the start.

“The Lab2Market idea came from Kara,” Dr. Katz added. “She suggested that it would give us good insight as to what industry is looking for. We owe Kara and Paula for this gentle push. We have a better picture of the next steps both inside the lab to move related chemistry forward and the next steps necessary to take our material from a powder in a vial to the exhaust on a ship.”

Vital support

Dr. Mendonça, who is championing the Lab2Market Oceans program, is confident participants are gaining practical entrepreneurial experience.

“Memorial plays a critical role in fostering and supporting innovation in Newfoundland and Labrador,” she said.

“Specifically, for the Lab2Market Oceans program we are looking at the implementation of these materials into marine vessel exhaust scrubbing systems for removing post-combustion atmosphere-bound pollutants,” Mr. McGrath explained.

“Materials like ours can hopefully help the marine industry operate their vessels below regulatory emission guidelines, resulting in less service interruptions and cleaner exhaust gas.”

‘Chemistry in context’

The roots of Mr. McGrath’s research began as a “hallway conversation” between Drs. Katz, Young and Trevor VandenBoer, a former Banting postdoctoral fellow.

Mr. McGrath helped expand that work when he began studying at Memorial.

“We started with the idea, ‘Can we sense nitrous acid?’” Dr. Katz explained. “A jack-of-all-trades, Devon built an instrument capable of making nitrous acid gas. Then he had to learn how to characterize the adsorption process and a whole slew of characterization techniques to put the chemistry in context.”

“Memorial plays a critical role in fostering and supporting innovation.”— Dr. Paula Mendonça

During this time, Dr. Katz also connected with the Technology Transfer and Commercialization Office.

“With support from Springboard Atlantic, we were able to take this hallway discussion and patent it in September of 2019,” he noted, adding TTCO staff members Dr. Paula Mendonça, director of innovation and entrepreneurship, and Kara Strickland, intellectual property officer, have been in their “corner” from the start.

“The Lab2Market idea came from Kara,” Dr. Katz added. “She suggested that it would give us good insight as to what industry is looking for. We owe Kara and Paula for this gentle push. We have a better picture of the next steps both inside the lab to move related chemistry forward and the next steps necessary to take our material from a powder in a vial to the exhaust on a ship.”

Vital support

Dr. Mendonça, who is championing the Lab2Market Oceans program, is confident participants are gaining practical entrepreneurial experience.

“Memorial plays a critical role in fostering and supporting innovation in Newfoundland and Labrador,” she said.

“The Lab2Market Oceans program will help ensure emerging innovators and entrepreneurs receive essential support as they address challenges and take advantage of opportunities related to the ocean sector.”

‘Useful partnerships’

For his part, Mr. McGrath says one of the immediate benefits is connecting with industry leaders, which is helping shape the future of his research.

“As well, I am hoping to create useful partnerships over the course of the fall semester, which will hopefully assist Mike and me in achieving our goals of creating a startup company and bringing our innovation to market.”

Lab2Market is funded by the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, FedDev Ontario and Mitacs and delivered through Dalhousie University, Memorial University and Ryerson University. Lab2Market Oceans involves additional support from Canada’s Ocean Supercluster, the Ocean Startup Project and Springboard Atlantic. Mr. McGrath and Dr. Katz’s industry mentor for this project is Paul Jamer, president of Nova Scotia-based Breakwater Group.

Jeff Green is manager of communications in the Office of the Vice-President (Research). He can be reached at jeffg@mun.ca.

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