Iatro's quest for a biological smoke detector
Converging technologies set stage for anti-terror and diagnostics applications

The recent wave of international terrorism is raising the frightening prospect of large-scale biological and chemical attacks. But Jean Bourbonnais isn't sitting around waiting for that to happen.

Flush with $15 million in newly raised venture capital financing and an investment from the Central Intelligence Agency's venture capital arm, Bourbonnais, president of Nun's Island-based IatroQuest Corporation is racing to develop what he calls a "biological smoke detector."

"Think of how a smoke detector sets of a warning when there is a fire," Bourbonnais said. "We want to build a product that warns you that there are biological agents in the room."

IatroQuest already has a working laboratory prototype and a portable demonstration system, both of which are in the midst of extensive testing and refinement. And Bourbonnais expects to have production versions on the market by 2005.

The final version would be either a hand-held or tied into a building's heating and ventilation systems. It would be able to detect the presence of any one of the 20 primary biological agents that the U.S. Centers for Disease Controls has warned could be used in an attack.

Unlike existing methods, IatroQuest's biological smoke detector would deliver results instantly rather than waiting 10 or 12 hours for a series of lab tests to come through.

"During recent scares you had technicians going through government buildings taking samples with cotton swabs and then sending them to the lab," Bourbonnais said. "That takes a lot of time."

There are numerous North American companies that are racing to come up with systems that warn about the presence of biological agents.

But according to Bourbonnais, IatroQuest's technology, --which it has named "Bio-Alloy," -- stands out because it takes advantage of the convergence of new semi-conductor materials, photonics, biotechnology and nanotechnology.

The process starts with a diced semi-conductor chip that is divided into tiny segments called nano-structures. The chip is then coated with a variety of recognition elements including anti-bodies, enzymes and nucleotides.

When the target agent such as Anthrax or Ricin, hits the recognition element on the chip's surface, it generates a response. This creates a change in light intensity that is picked up by a detector, and a warning is sent out.

Bourbonnais, a big Tom Clancy fan, who has read all his books, has a long history of identifying tech winners. Before joining IatroQuest, he co-founded and was chief technology officer at Alis Technologies, where he worked for 18 years.

He is just as enthusiastic about IatroQuest's new technology, which he claims will be much easier to use than competitive methods and will reduce supply and operating costs.

In fact Bourbonnais believes that the detection technology has as much potential in the field of diagnostics, particularly in drug discovery and proteomics applications.

To help pursue diagnostics opportunities, the company recently brought John Schafer, a U.S. trained clinical chemist on board as CEO.

Bourbonnais now handles financial, legal and human resources, and Schafer oversees research and product development.

The appointment meant that Schafer was forced to relocate to Montreal, from southern New Hampshire. But he has no problems with that.

"For a person in the diagnostics industry this is a dream technology that people have been talking about for decades," Schafer said.

Schafer wasn't the only IatroQuest employee who had to relocate to Montreal.

In late 2003, the company, which had been working of National Research Council facilities in Ottawa, took over 20,000 square feet of laboratory and office space in Nun's Island to accommodate its growth after a fruitless search for accommodations in its home town.

According to Robert Sing, director of scientific programs at NanoQuebec, it was a fortuitous move.

"We have a good concentration of nanotechnology companies here in Montreal and they will fit in well," Sing said.

Schafer agreed.

"There is a good labor pool and university base which gives us access to both people and equipment," Schafer said.

Despite the fact that IatroQuest's technology shows promise both in the fields of biodefense and diagnostics, Bourbonnais realizes that as a startup, its very important to focus the company's efforts so as not to waste scarce energy and resources.

And right now that focus remains on the terrorist threat.

"Look at the Anthrax attacks that shut down many U.S. government buildings and the recent Ricin incidents," said Bourbonnais, president of IatroQuest. "It could have been a lot worse."

 

 

Photo caption: According to IatroQuest's CEO, John Schafer, and president, Jean Bourbonnais, recent terrorist attacks have made it much easier for companies that specialize in bio-defense to raise money.

 

Fact Box:
Company Name: IatroQuest Corporation
Web-site: www.iatroquest.com
Owner: Controlled by the venture capital arms of Mouvement Desjardins, Business Development Bank of Canada, Fonds de Solidarité FTQ and T2C2.
Products: Developing bio-sensing technology
Employees: 27
Sales: Contract revenues only
Phone #: 514-362-1091

peter@peterdiekmeyer.com

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