For the first time in its 16-year history, Western University’s Sarnia-Lambton Research Park is telling startup companies to get in line.
In early July, the last of eight classroom-sized lab spaces at the park – a high-tech research incubator a stone’s throw from the Chemical Valley – was claimed by Forward Water Technologies, a Kingston import looking into water-purification technology. It’s a crowning achievement for the facility as, for the first time since major renovations concluded in 2013, all laboratory spaces are full.
Howie Honeyman, president and chief executive officer of Forward Water Technologies, said the move to Sarnia made sense for his company on every level.
“We came to Sarnia because there’s a community of resources, such as Lambton College, the research park,” Honeyman said, “and there’s a lot of talent resources from the chemical industry — everything from support to operations — that we think we can really take advantage of.
“I can’t find that kind of environment in Toronto or the Toronto region.”
When the former DOW Chemical building was purchased in 2003, leaders in Sarnia, Lambton County and London-based Western University envisioned a full roster of side-by-side startups able to transition from research to pilot projects to full-scale commercialization.
The project was pitched as a win-win. Companies would have all the high-tech resources available at nearby Lambton College, as well as a direct channel between the college and Western — and other companies in the park, many of them part of Sarnia’s Chemical Valley.
On the other side, Sarnia and Lambton County would get a leg up in recruiting cutting-edge startups like Forward Water Technology in the hopes those companies would transition into the border city’s industry-driven infrastructure.
“That’s the goal of the park,” Katherine Albion, executive director of the research incubator, said. “Start them off, give them the support they need to grow and be successful … and then they move on to the next level.”
Roughly half of the 40 tenants at the research park are working to develop commercial startups, either at the pilot stage or as a small company. The rest, many of them major players in Sarnia’s business and industrial communities, take up office space on the other side of the building.
That includes Chemical Valley mainstays such as NOVA Chemicals and community builders such as the Sarnia Lambton Economic Partnership.
Most tenants take “three to five years” to graduate from the research park, Albion said. It makes it difficult to keep the flexible pilot project spaces filled. As new companies come in, others graduate to laboratory space or out of the facility altogether.
We still have some office space and we still have some pilot space available,” Albion said.
Other startups are there for years. Ed Lui, a retired professor from Western University, started a ginseng cultivation and commercialization startup in 2015 as a way to capitalize on higher-quality versions of the native plant.
Four years in, Western Phytoceutica is working on a half-dozen commercial projects — including research on endangered golden seal ginseng, and a separate study that could influence the international standard for American ginseng production in trade, specifically with China.
“Commercialization is different than basic research,” Lui said. “There’s a lot of politics involved too. … It’s a real challenge (to) develop a standard for quality and safety.”
Companies provide most of the equipment themselves, procured through grants and other loans. Other more specialized equipment can be accessed through the incubator’s partnership with nearby Lambton College.
“There’s great synergies here in Sarnia-Lambton,” Albion said. “All of our pilot plants have collaborated with the college in one form or another. A lot of our researchers are developing programs and projects with them.”
Now that the laboratory side of Sarnia-Lambton Research Park is full, Albion said, the goal is to fill the remaining pilot spaces and office spaces.