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Big Ambitions

Tucked away in a small well-used lab along the ground floor of the Chemistry-Physics Building, a trio of eager young scientists have big plans to transform the province’s oil industry.

Liam Whelan, Josh Walsh and Lucas Stewart – all Memorial alumni – are the minds behind Spectroleum Labs, a local chemical sensing start up that’s developed an innovative piece of technology they say will positively impact business and the environment.

“Specifically our company is developing an environmental sensing platform for the offshore oil industry,” said Mr. Whelan, who grew up in Mount Pearl, N.L., and holds both a B.Sc. and a M.Sc. in chemistry.

“Our sensing technology enables oil producers to significantly reduce some of the costs and challenges in the regulatory monitoring of offshore produced water,” added Mr. Stewart, a native of St. Bernard’s in Fortune Bay. He also holds a B.Sc. in chemistry and just completed the coursework and research for his master’s degree in chemistry.

“By implementing our technology, oil producers here will be able to rapidly and efficiently monitor and screen for any contamination they would release in to the marine environment. Our technology can take an all-day testing method and reduce it to a five-minute test.”

‘Cheap and precise analysis’
The teammates chuckle about their modest and humble surroundings but insist their technology is the way of the future. They proudly show off some of the top-notch equipment and infrastructure crammed into the small lab.

“In 10 years, we hope to have taken our technology to the global market while still being owned and operated here in Newfoundland and Labrador.” — Liam Whelan
Utilizing a high-tech microscope – perched atop a broad hydraulic table – they’re able to quickly analysis offshore produced water.

“Basically a laser interacts with a sample and essentially takes a chemical fingerprint of the water,” explained Mr. Whelan.

The procedure provides a “cheap and precise analysis at a fraction of the time of standard analysis methods,” he added.

Top spot during recent competition
Spectroleum got off the ground in August 2015. Since then, the group has been meeting with industry players, local levels of government and the business community. They also recently took part in a mentoring program through the Genesis Centre, Memorial’s award-winning business incubator for technology start-ups. In fact, Spectroleum clinched top spot during Pitch and Pick, an April 15 event where aspiring entrepreneurs pitched business ideas to a panel of judges and a packed audience at Bitter’s Pub and Restaurant.

“The event was an amazing opportunity for us to pitch our technology to the local community, which we’re extremely grateful for and even more so to be chosen as the winner of the event,” noted Mr. Walsh, a native of Pasadena on the province’s west coast. He also holds a B.Sc. and M.Sc. in chemistry and is currently completing his PhD in the subject.

“The biggest take away for us was the validation and confidence given to us by being chosen as the winner by the audience. Essentially, it was a huge reassurance that we’re on the right track as a company.”

Memorial roots
In addition to their academic connections to Memorial, the company is quick to point out the research behind their technology began at the university. They also credit the support of the Department of Chemistry as well as its researchers Drs. Christina Bottaro and Erika Merschrod and Dr. Kelly Hawboldt from the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science in helping cultivate their research ideas. Technology the company relies upon was developed through a project the trio of professors led, which was funded by Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA), Research & Development Corporation (RDC) and Petroleum Research Newfoundland and Labrador (PRNL).

The recent success of Spectroleum Labs is the type of innovation Memorial is fostering through its Technology Transfer and Commercialization Strategy, through which Memorial is contributing to the diversification and strength of the provincial economy in order to meet the business needs of tomorrow.

That philosophy is shared by Spectroleum who say they have their sights squarely set on the international market.

“In 10 years, we hope to have taken our technology to the global market while still being owned and operated here in Newfoundland and Labrador,” said Mr. Whelan. “Ultimately, we hope to be able to provide future generations of scientists careers here at home rather than having to move elsewhere in Canada or the world.”