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The perfect combination of two expertises

In Quebec City in 2012, a single legionella-contaminated cooling tower infected 181 people and killed 14 of them. This situation, which required a major investigation, led to the provincial government’s adoption in 2014 of new regulations for cooling towers in buildings, where the bacteria can accumulate and be released into the ambient air. In 2017 in Granby, nine people were diagnosed with Legionnaire’s disease. Although no one died, the Public Health Department in the Estrie region worked hard to find the cause, but to no avail. What if there was a device capable of quickly and automatically detecting the presence of legionella in cooling towers, the bacteria responsible for causing legionellosis, a potentially fatal lung infection in humans? That device now exists – the BioAlert, created by the young Sherbrooke-based company SpiBio. The idea for the device was born on a kitchen counter somewhere in 2010, thanks to the expertise of two roommates. Indeed, Étienne Lemieux was finishing his PhD in cellular biology, while his roommate Dominic Carrier was finishing his master’s degree in electrical engineering. So what are the links between cell biology and electrical engineering? In current practice, these two disciplines are rarely used in the same project. But to create a device capable of automatically treating legionella levels in water, it was the perfect mesh! “We had a lot of discussions together and came up with this idea,” says Lemieux. “It’s biochemical expertise coupled with engineering. Our two areas of expertise allowed us to think outside the box,” he adds. It took four years to launch the company SpiBio, which negotiated a few tight turns before it had the wind in its sails today. After working as hard as they did, it was in 2017 that the two friends and business partners were able to do their first technological validations thanks to partners with whom they installed the BioAlert. In 2018, commercialization began on a small scale. Today, the work team is growing and the order book is filling up quickly: in July, SpiBio has 12 employees and new employees will be hired shortly. For some time now, the company has been located in Espace LABz, a multi-tenant centre managed by Sherbrooke Innopole and aimed at companies working in the life sciences or clean technology sectors. The market for BioAlert is huge. In Quebec, there are an estimated 2,600 cooling towers. In the United States, there would be between 250,000 and 300,000. There are cooling towers in many residential towers, and the market is large, but to start with, it is the commercial market that SpiBio will tackle. “The commercial market is easier because managers know the significant costs associated with closing a cooling tower in a plant, for example,” says Étienne Lemieux. Interest in the Sherbrooke product – and a majority of its suppliers are Canadian – is starting to be felt by several customers who have a wide reach with several facilities around the world. So the future is bright for the two accomplices and business partners. A future fraught with many challenges, however. “We are fortunate to have very understanding spouses, because it’s not easy to live with an entrepreneur. It’s almost obsessive,” notes Étienne Lemieux. Both partners want to prevent the spread of legionella, given that a single cooling tower can contaminate a radius of three to 12 kilometres around it. That’s what happened in the case of Quebec City in 2012. “We have found a real problem, and it is a problem that matches our ambition. A lot of people have failed before us. Now we’re spreading our wings,” says Carrier, adding that the technology they developed to detect Legionella could be used to detect other bacteria. “Our ambition is to create something bigger than ourselves,” concludes Lemieux. Article found here: https://www.latribune.ca/actualites/merite-estrien/laccord-parfait-de-deux-expertises-974e9db4a3f578c5db8ecab75083a001
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