Clean 15 contest: Nano goes mega

Announcing the winner of the Clean 15 contest.

Nanomaterials sound like science fiction: extremely tiny substances, less than 1/10,000th the width of a human hair, that take on entirely new characteristics due to their small size. They’re very real, however, at Vive Nano Inc., which is using such materials to develop novel methods of crop protection, water purification and even self-cleaning building products.

Each application of the technology comes with environmental benefits and plenty of potential customers, securing the company’s spot as the winner of the Clean 15 competition. The three-year-old Toronto-based firm is entitled to business development and promotional services valued at $60,000 from the competition’s sponsors, including, a technology-transfer marketplace, and Drayton Weissenfels Inc. of Toronto. The latter firm connects clean-tech companies with clients, and president and competition judge Dwayne Matthews believes there will be many interested parties for Vive Nano’s offerings. “They have the potential to really reduce the amount of chemicals we put on our food,” he says. “And the ability to clean water, especially when applied to the oilsands, is a big opportunity.”

The 15-person team at Vive Nano has already made plenty of progress. Crop protection is a major focus, and the company’s technology promises to not only replace some of the more harmful chemicals used in pesticides and herbicides, but also to improve the performance. Vive Nano is working to control the rate at which chemicals are absorbed by crops, thereby ensuring farmers do not have to over-spray their fields. That saves on cost and decreases chemical runoff. “Applying these products more safely, less expensively and with greater environmental benefit, there’s a huge value there,” says president and CEO Keith Thomas.

The same can be said of Vive Nano’s other research area — photocatalytics, a term used to describe substances that break down harmful organic material when exposed to sunlight. Water purification is a natural market, and the company claims its products can work more efficiently than existing methods, since they react to a wider spectrum of light.

But the applications extend even further. Coating glass and concrete in a photocatalytic will allow buildings to eradicate dirt and grime all on their own. Darren Anderson, the company’s chief technology officer and a co-founder, says Vive Nano’s products are unique in that they can work indoors, as well.

Anderson knew of the wide range of uses for nanomaterials as a graduate student at the University of Toronto, when he was working in the lab of chemistry professor Cynthia Goh. In 2006, Goh, Anderson and three others formed the company and hired Thomas as CEO.

The team has attracted millions in funding, including $3.8 million from Sustainable Development Technology Canada. Much of the company’s work has yet to move beyond the lab, but winning the competition will help it gain exposure among potential customers. “We’d like to see ourselves become one of the new generation of chemical giants,” says Anderson.