The header image is from the authors. Substance CC license applies.
“In the fields of observation chance favours only the prepared mind.” – Louis Pasteur
The journey to a successful endeavour is never easy, until it is your turn to make it, then you realize that not only is it hard, but it requires a great deal of patience and resilience. In the end, you realize it is only the first step that opens the door to a greater, much more interesting enterprise. This is, in short, what I have learned through the process of creating Inktio. Every time we achieve something, we see there are more goals to conquer and more options available…
It all started in the lab of the research group called Nomad. Jaime (the chemical engineer) was trying a new formulation to create nanoparticles of titanium dioxide (TiO2), a non-toxic ubiquitous material that is present in several industries, paints, skin care, water treatment, solar cells and optoelectronic applications, among others.
As for us, working in nanoelectronics, we like this material because of its properties when crystallized, that is, its atoms are organized in a repetitive fashion with very predictable characteristics. Normally, when you produce TiO2, the synthesis produces an amorphous sludge: the molecules are formed but not organized. Traditional methods for crystallization include heating the sludge, from 500 °C – 800 °C, in most common applications. The amount of energy introduced in the system through heating helps everyone fall in place and, achieve this crystalline state that we so much desire (Benavides, 2018).
An Unexpected Behaviour
Back to the story, Jaime asked Charles (the physicist) to study the material and during the analysis, Charles noticed something strange: the material was changing with the radiation of a simple green laser, and they were nowhere near an oven, they were in another room. In their prepared minds, they realized this was in fact crystallization of the TiO2 formula, just like what happens in an oven after hours of heating only that, here, it was happening in seconds using a fraction of the energy. So, what was going on here? That’s where I came in with my knowledge of semiconductors (I’m the electrical engineer) to try to help understand the phenomenon.
After discussing these results with our lab director, Sylvain Cloutier (he knows a lot, so I’m calling him “the cool professor”), not only was he just as nerdly excited as we were, but he went on to suggest we should produce an invention disclosure and pursue a more serious path into bringing this into a market we had no idea about: printed electronics. As it turns out, we can produce a TiO2 ink that can easily be processed and is fully compatible with current industry needs in the printed electronics market. We would realize this much later but our prepared minds were on to something back then, we just needed clarity and exploration.
First, we had to convince the people who take care of intellectual property that this obscure idea had real potential in a large, and rapidly growing market. Rejection, of course, came soon enough. And, of course, we kept trying because we believed in our invention and the real possibility of taking this further. I sat down with Jaime and wrote a document comparing our technology to every other patent available at that moment, pointing out our strengths and their shortcomings. These were technical people and it made it easier for us to speak a language we all understood; finally, they agreed to support us and, in 2018, we filed a provisional patent that soon will become a formal patent application.
The Génie en Affaires Contest
Our next hurdle came when we decided to participate in the contest called Génie en Affaires, organized by Acfas (Association francophone pour le savoir). This contest aims to boost and encourage researchers at the university/graduate level to bring their inventions—and explore the real financial possibilities and entrepreneurial side—out of the laboratory and present it to the general public; a public that knows about the importance of cancer treatments, improving agricultural practice, and even food preservation but, generally, printed electronics and semiconducting inks are not what you may consider general knowledge.
The jury in the Génie en Affaires contest are all knowledgeable people in the technology sector, with a clear view for business and lots of experience in management of tech companies. You cannot just waltz in with a weak business plan, claiming that you will save the world with 10,000 dollars. At best, our first draft for the business plan was an OK grant proposal for scientific research. We were lucky in two ways: first, we had great financial mentors that believed in our product and wanted us to succeed, even if that meant telling us to rewrite the whole business plan. Second, we are friends and we are a team that accepted criticism, believed in the importance of advice and did not care to rewrite the whole business plan, even if it meant many, many more hours.
The decisions for the finals came and we were among the six teams selected for the grand gala, where first we had to present our product at a mini-expo open to the public. It was like having our own 2-hour Consumer Electronics Show in Montreal. Everyone presented brand-new technologies, ready to hit the market with very brilliant people behind them. The six teams brought very interesting projects, all with the same chances of turning into a real product, and the ambition of tackling huge markets.
Funny detail, two out of our 3-person team are non-native French speakers. Buying stuff at the grocery store or asking for directions is one thing, defending a technical project to a variety of listeners with different backgrounds, that is a whole other level of French (especially for me). One thing was clear to us: we are passionate about what we do and I’m sure the lack of words was filled with such passion that somehow, we got the message across (I’m sure that glass of wine helped too). Charles, of course, took the lead, making the presentation in front of the jury.
After our little expo, the moment of truth came with a 3-minute presentation in front of the jury and the grand public. We tallied the time invested in preparing the 3-minute presentation: we put more than 120 hours of design, corrections, script writing, watching other inspiring people give talks, and thinking, lots of thinking. The hardest of all was the message we wanted to convey in our presentation and how we could fit it all in 3 minutes. The final script was one page long, about 380 words, which means, on average, more than two words per second, including pauses and a few seconds of safe time, just in case. Charles practised this talk many, many times, like a crazy person walking and repeating the same thing over and over by himself, for a few days.
In the end, team Inktio was selected as the winner by the jury, and it was hard to hide our pride. It was the result of strong team work, fueled by dreams and resolve. Along with all the visibility and prestige this contest brings in Québec, we now have access to a number of services to help us create a company, and to coaching, that otherwise would have cost us quite a bit.
My biggest fear was the fact that explaining what we do and why it is important is not an easy task. It is much easier to relate to everyday topics that affect you directly in an obvious way. Printed electronics is an everyday fact, but not necessarily so obvious that you think about it consciously. RFID tags, flexible electronics, solar cells, biometrics, sensors are all applications where we believe our ink has potential use and yet, you do not necessarily think about the fabrication of that flexible screen you see on TV … it just works.
It wasn’t easy: we had to make changes frequently, remove here, add there. We needed patience with our mentors, with ourselves and especially with the process we were going through. Successful businesses are carefully planned down to the last detail, and we just started.
Luis Felipe Gerlein Reyes
Luis Felipe Gerlein R. is a Ph.D. candidate at ÉTS. His research interests include nanofabrication and characterization of optoelectronic devices based on lead chalcogenides, carbon-based nanostructures and perovskite materials.
Program : Electrical Engineering
Research chair : Canada Research Chair in Hybrid Optoelectronic Materials and Devices