Whether preventing passport fraud or currency counterfeiting, smart nano-materials invented by Toronto-based Opalux have locked in a new level of security.
Born in Professor Geoffrey Ozin’s chemistry lab at the University of Toronto (U of T), Opalux’s interactive security features are designed to manipulate light (photons) to prevent counterfeiting from fraudsters. Supported by loyal investors and nurtured onto the market by the Government of Canada’s Concierge service and National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC IRAP), the one-of-a-kind technology is virtually impossible to duplicate.
“The features are driven by ‘tunable’ photonic crystals whose appearance changes in response to a range of stimuli including laser energy, pressure, electric current and chemicals,” says Opalux CEO Andrew Binkley. For example, genuine banknotes embedded with the crystals change colour when users squeeze or scratch them, whereas counterfeit money will not. On passports, the feature protects the document holder’s portrait by adding an identical colour-shifting portrait that makes tampering very tough.
“We are the only people in the world who make this material,” he adds. “It is so advanced that counterfeiters and competitors simply don’t have the knowledge and resources to copy it.” Binkley points out that the company’s team of world-class scientists has spent 10 years perfecting the materials.
From the lab to the market
Helping Opalux move from academia to the market were Concierge and NRC IRAP. More than a decade ago, Industrial Technology Advisor (ITA) Pauline Walsh began the journey with the company by opening doors to scientific test facilities at NRC, identifying a management consultant to help create a business plan and locating the Embedded Executive Funding Program so the company could hire a key member for their management team.
“When I met Andrew and his team, they were doing fantastic research in the U of T department of chemistry and had invented these photonic materials that could be applied to a wide array of solutions,” says Walsh. An optical physicist, she understood not only the technology but also the process for turning an invention into products and services that people will buy. “The science created overwhelming opportunities, so the challenge was focusing their development efforts on something that could be commercially viable.”
Walsh’s role over the years was to ask hard questions such as, “What is the market size? Who are your first customers? How can we help build that business?” More recently, Opalux’s ideas to convert the technology platform into a high-security product line began to coalesce, and encountered a very receptive market. The next step was finding manufacturing capacity, and to help them with that Walsh connected Opalux with contacts at MaRS – the world’s largest urban innovation hub.
“Canada is very supportive of innovative companies and wants them to succeed.”Andrew Binkley, CEO, Opalux
At this point, Walsh also introduced them to Concierge Innovation Advisor (IA) Trish Barrow, who provided a direct introduction to the Build in Canada Innovation Program (BCIP), which helps qualified Canadian innovators succeed in the marketplace by becoming their first customer.
“BCIP speeds time to market by buying startups’ pre-commercial products or services and helping them conduct tests in real-life settings,” says Barrow. Opalux has qualified and is expecting to be awarded a contract shortly with a testing organization.
Companies accepted into BCIP are allowed to keep their intellectual property and retain all their equity. The program pays up to $500,000 for non-military innovations, and up to $1 million for military ones.
Breaking commercial barriers
According to Binkley, the high-security industry is fairly conservative, requires a long sales cycle and demands products with a life of at least 10 years. “Our key market is government, and it can be difficult for a young company to attract global government business,” he says. The highly selective BCIP helped Opalux gain credibility in the industry and get top-notch feedback from industry experts. “Through this program, we get to work with government customers who can provide references and validate our products.”
Binkley reports that Barrow continues to identify various programs, help the company focus on the right ones and provide ongoing encouragement. “This is particularly important when you don’t have a long track record of applying for government funding and going through those complex and often painful processes,” he adds. Through Concierge, Barrow can access more than 4800 programs federally, provincially and regionally. This means that IAs can design custom packages that help eligible Canadian small and medium enterprises (SMEs) grow their businesses.
A critical breakthrough for Opalux was a recent partnership with De La Rue – the world’s largest high-security printer. “This partnership is an excellent move for us because we are an innovative Canadian company with a distinctive, specialized technology and they are a company with huge credibility and global reach,” explains Binkley. “Our business is based largely on trust, so by partnering with someone who has been operating for almost 200 years and can vouch for a small newcomer is a major coup.”
As Opalux continues to evolve and develop new products, Concierge and NRC IRAP will be on call. “Canada is very supportive of innovative companies and wants them to succeed,” he notes. “And keeping our head office in Toronto, Ontario yields a number of competitive advantages.” These include a location that is well-situated to do business globally, access to a pool of highly skilled scientists and proximity to world-class research and educational facilities such as U of T and the University of Waterloo.
And that’s what “Made in Canada” is all about.