Alberta, Canada has established itself as the go-to place, with its strong economy, varied landscape, and world-class education facilities. Now in a bid to secure its future, it has established the Ingenuity Lab, which brings science to the forefront. The New Economy speaks to its representative Carlo Montemagno to find out more.
The New Economy: Well Carlo, maybe you could start by telling me what exactly is the Ingenuity Lab?
Carlo Montemagno: The Ingenuity Lab is an initiative that was established by the province of Alberta, to bring the best minds together to address global challenges. They set up a framework where they provided long term funding, almost $100m over a period of 10 years, in which we can deal with very, very significant challenges, to bring them to a stage of development that we can deploy them in the market and essentially create two solutions, solutions to the economic, environmental and health challenges that are faced by the province, and also to act as a driver to develop and be a nucleus for creating new jobs and improving overall prosperity.
What we’re looking at now is, how do you employ this knowledge that we get to create actual deployable technologies into the economy
The New Economy: Well, Ingenuity Lab was set up to bring together the world’s best researchers to address the grand challenges of Alberta’s future. What challenges are you focusing on?
Carlo Montemagno: So we’re looking at, how do we maximise the economic return on utilising these resources, while minimising the environmental impact of the things that we do? One of the areas that we’re looking at is, how de we take emissions and create value out of emissions? How do we extract out the maximum amount of resources from waste-streams, so that small quantities of items which we normally dispose of in landfills or in tailings ponds, instead we extract them out, so they’re no longer pollutants, and they also create economic value. And the other area that we’re working on is, how do we make resources available that are no longer there? Particularly water resources, how do you take and use a resource which is limited in scope, important to people globally, and make sure that we maximise utility, and even expand the availability of those resources. And the last thing is, how can we use this technology to broaden and reduce the reliance on the current infrastructure in healthcare, and be able to expand it in a way that allows us to provide solutions which are no longer there, to make healthcare more affordable, more effective, and more widely available.
The New Economy: Well you focus on nanoscience, now what exactly is this, and what impact will it play on the future of Alberta?
Carlo Montemagno: Well, the interesting feature about nanoscience is we’re really actually working at nanotechnology. For the last 15 years people, when people have talked about it, it really was nanoscience. We were understanding how manipulate matter, how you control matter at the smallest scale. What we’re looking at now is, how do you employ this knowledge that we get to create actual deployable technologies into the economy. One metre and a nanometre, the comparison is between the diameter of the earth and a soccer ball. You’ve all heard those things, but it’s not just being small. It’s about putting molecules where you want them to be, when you want them to be there, to do what you want them to do. Just because you’re working with molecules doesn’t make you do nanotechnology, it requires the precision assembly of matter. That’s the way living systems work, and that’s the reason why the accelerator, or the Ingenuity Lab, we have a motto called “the Power of N – Nature, Nanotechnology, and Networks” and the idea is we take our inspiration from the way nature works, we use nanotechnology to get access to the way nature works, and we create them into systems that are useful to people at our scale.
The New Economy: Well you work within four sectors: mining, agriculture, energy and health. How important are these to Alberta’s and in fact the Canadian economy as a whole?
Carlo Montemagno: Alberta itself has the the third largest proven oil reserves in the world, behind Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, so it’s a huge economic driver, not just for Alberta but for all of Canada, in fact most of the world. Every dollar that we generate in Canada yields eight dollars more in the energy sector globally, it’s an incredible economic driver. The other areas of course are agriculture, we’re a major exporter of food, and the mining of course we produce many mining minerals to a large extent that are strategic in nature, and are very important because the stockpiles, the ability to produce it globally is fairly restricted depending where the source of the ore is. And health, health is ubiquitous. Every nation in the world deals with health. Different problems, different areas, but health is a key component to prosperity for everyone.
We have been able to mimic the way nature works in the production of matter
The New Economy: Well what problems do these areas pose, and what breakthroughs have you made in these areas?
Carlo Montemagno: We have been able to mimic the way nature works in the production of matter. We look around and we see the original nanotechnology machines of grass and green things. What we’ve figured out how to do is, how do you extract out the metabolism that’s found in those plants and those animals, and impart them inside materials that we engineer and produce. So it’s not alive, but it has the same metabolic pathways. So now we can take just CO2 that’s been emitted from a source, sunlight or another light source, and convert it directly into valuated dropping chemicals. We’ve identified 72 different chemicals that we can produce. That means that we can take an emission which is implicated in global warming and all those other problems, and now instead of emitting it, we use that to provide new products for that drive, and hopefully we’ll drive a new economic sector, and it will be deployable globally.
The New Economy: Well finally, how do you see the Ingenuity Lab’s role in the future?
Carlo Montemagno: One of the biggest challenges that you have is that scientists and investigators, they work in a very compartmentalised fashion, in which they all work in a very, very small segment, and don’t try and work across disciplines so that they can develop the technologies to reach the marketplace. The other problem associated with it is that the majority of funding that comes in is all focused on very near-term solutions, and very incremental gains, and the end result is that oftentimes scientists are funded work they’ve almost completed already, because that is the only way they can compete for getting the resources. They show so much data that the job is almost already done before they get the money, because they’re so risk averse. The Ingenuity Lab’s funding mechanism was set up to really tackle over the horizon technology, provide a base of long-term support so you can employ strategies to develop these technologies, and get them to the marketplace and get them to where we can realise the opportunities that technology will afford to improve prosperity.
The New Economy: Carlo, thank you.