PhD student launches company and is a finalist in TEC Edmonton's VenturePrize Competition

Edmonton–Chris Holt, having just completed his PhD in Materials Engineering at the University of Alberta (U of A), has launched a company for advanced sensor systems called Phase.

Chris was announced as one of three finalists in the student category for the 11th annual VenturePrize Business Plan Competition hosted by TEC Edmonton. He said, “It’s kind of nice being at the stage in a competition where you know you will win something.” The first-place student will receive $20,000 and second and third place students will receive $7,500 towards taking their companies to the next level.

His innovative sensor all started during his capstone (final) project during his undergraduate degree in Engineering Physics at the U of A where he created an oil well sensor. He started a Masters in Materials Engineering supervised by Dr. Mitlin, but then jumped ahead into a PhD as his research was taking off.

Chris is no novice when it comes to competing for funding. During his Masters, he helped in obtaining a $1 million grant from nanoWorks to develop micro sensors for oil well logging in collaboration with DataCan – a small company started by Mark Hartwell (University of Alberta Mechanical Engineering Alumni), Chris’ friend and previous colleague. Chris has also received $75,000 in funding towards developing Phase from the nanoBridge MNTorship program under the direction of Ray Lemieux and won a U of A business plan competition (AVCatalyst) where he received $12,000.  “Ray Lemieux made starting a company possible for me by encouraging me to compete, providing fantastic advice, and helping me make connections as I get started,” Chris said.

While doing research for his PhD on oil well logging micro sensors, his research group started working with oil refining companies in the fouling research field.  Fouling is the process of solid buildup that interferes with heat exchanger operation. Delayed Coker furnaces, which process heavy oil through rapid heating suffer from significant fouling problems that reduce efficiency, limit product throughput and force the unit to periodically shut down. “It’s incredible that the fouling and oil well sensor research were happening in parallel and I could apply my sensor technology to the oil refining industry. It’s exciting and fun to produce something new,” he said. Chris has built an adaptor so that his sensor can fit into the current fouling measurement unit, which was developed by Paul Eaton at Champion Technologies.

This sensor will help improve data collection that in turn allows for refineries to more efficiently operate their furnaces. Chris’ sensor will measure carbon build up around its three tiny wires through monitoring the heat transport from the wires as they are electrically heated. “Testing the fouling properties of oil feedstocks is a pre-screening process to prevent problems in the furnaces,” he said. The Phase sensors provide a test platform to prescribe operating conditions that reduce fouling and increase efficiency in the refining process.  

"It was a real pleasure working with Chris. His enthusiasm and creativity really helped to drive the program forward. Chris was also a great team member, always having time to help others in the group," Dr. David Mitlin said, "It gives me real pleasure to see something that our group began many years ago as a basic science research project mature into a real commercial venture. Its a classic example of what was originally funded by the Alberta Ingenuity Fund as a 100% curiosity-driven discovery type of work that will now yield tangible commercial opportunities in the province."

If he receives first prize ($20,000) in tonight’s TEC Edmonton VenturePrize Awards Celebration, “it would be helpful so I could buy testing equipment for the start up. I even have some toys picked out,” he said smiling. Even if Chris wins second or third prize, he is well on his way towards firmly establishing his company, Phase.

In May Chris will also be heading to the Offshore Technology Conference in Houston, Texas to exhibit his sensors where he also looks forward to beginning work with Paul Eaton on producing a better fouling testing methodology based upon his sensors.

The TEC Edmonton Awards Celebration is taking place at the Westin Hotel, in Edmonton, this evening, April 17, 2013.

Naresh Miriyala – a Materials Engineering PhD student in Prof. Thomas Thundat’s group and undergraduate Materials Engineering student Avhishek Nage are part of another Faculty of Engineering team that has designed and built a microfluidic chip called the Cardio Chip that detects proteins in a patient's blood that are precursors to heart attacks. The Cardio Chip team leader, Naga Siva Kumar Gunda – a PhD candidate in Mechanical Engineering who is part of Prof. Sushanta Mitra's lab – is also a finalist in the TEC Edmonton VenturePrize Competition. Read more about the Cardio Chip team here.