Springboard Starter Funds Extract Big Results

A Cape Breton University professor’s love of chemistry is translating into research dollars. In the past year, Matthias Bierenstiel has secured about $200,000 in funding for scientific projects. “I like chemistry because you can do so much stuff and do minute changes that have really big impacts,” said Bierenstiel, a native of Germany who holds a PhD in inorganic chemistry. “I really enjoy that aspect of it, and the compounds that we make are completely new. Nobody has ever made made them in the world, not even nature.” In May, as part of his year-long sabbatical, Bierenstiel patented a series of new compounds with antibiotic properties that was tested against six organisms, including E. coli. While it did little to treat the bacterium, it showed positive results in treating Staphylococcus aureus, which causes staph infections. For that project, Bierenstiel received $35,000 from Springboard Atlantic, a regional commercialization and industry liaison network. “I’m in talks with some pharmaceutical companies (to see) whether they would like to take this further,” he said. Further testing is needed, said Bierenstiel, including determining what human side-effects, if any, might be produced. About two years ago, his research compelled the university to acquire an $800,000 instrument, which he said uncovers the composition of compounds. Bierenstiel will use that instrument when carrying out research as part of a $90,000 award received earlier this month from the research internship program Mitacs Accelerate and Sydney industry partner B.W. BioEnergy Inc. His team will work with BioEnergy for two years to explore how tree bark, a byproduct of the company’s patented activated carbon manufacturing process, could be used in other value-added product streams. The company produces bark from trees such as alder, birch, maple and willow, which contain a variety of natural compounds. “In this bark there’s a lot of interesting complex organic compounds that we can extract for the process,” said Bierenstiel. “One in particular would be birch, which has many, many, many compounds. One major compound is called betulin; this has anti-inflammatory properties, some anti-cancer properties and some anti-microbial properties.” According to Bierenstiel, some of the world’s major chemical suppliers are charging about $150 for a gram of betulin. While working with a commercial enterprise is relatively new for Bierenstiel, he said many of the research concepts are the same. “I’m still doing fundamental research, but there’s now this overlap. “So we’re using the opportunity to collaborate with industry. Normally you don’t look at ‘Well, what can we use this one for? Or what can we do to improve?’ So that’s very, very satisfying that we can actually see a direct impact on a company.” In addition to funding received for some smaller projects, Bierenstiel was also part of a team at the university that helped secure $45,000 from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada to help promote science to elementary school students and their teachers. As part of the project, the university developed kits containing experiments and other activities.