Carleton Opens Mass Spectrometry Centre

By Dan Rubinstein

Cracking open a cold beer is a Canada Day tradition, but when the Carleton Mass Spectrometry Centre (CMSC) launched a collaboration with Ottawa’s Broadhead Brewing Company on July 1, the new research facility’s inaugural project represented a fresh approach to partnerships between academia and industry.

The CMSC, in a retrofitted room on the ground floor of Carleton University’s Steacie Building, is home to seven mass spectrometers coupled to chromatography systems. The machines, which look like photocopiers connected to oversized microwave ovens, surrounded by an assortment of plastic tubes and glass vials, enable researchers to determine the molecular composition of a liquid or gas by separating gaseous ions according to their varying mass and charge.

This analytical technique is a century old, but mass spectrometers cost about $1 million apiece, putting the machines out of reach for most companies. So in December 2014, when Jeff Smith, an associate professor in Carleton’s Chemistry Department, spoke at a conference about the value of businesses working with scientists on technical challenges, representatives of life sciences multinational Agilent Technologies requested a meeting.

Agilent gave Carleton a good deal on two state-of-the-art mass spectrometers, and with additional units corralled from other locations on campus, the CMSC was born.

Which brings us back to beer.

Tapping into a $25,000 Engage Grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the CMSC and Broadhead are in the middle of a six-month project exploring shelf life and storage temperature questions for the microbrewery.

Mass spectrometry was used to obtain the molecular fingerprint of right-out-of-the-tank beer with an optimal taste and, by analyzing how the chemistry changes over time at a range of temperatures and in different types of containers, Broadhead will be better able to advise its distributors and customers how to handle the product.

“The beauty of this approach,” says Mr. Smith, the CMSC’s director, “is that we can direct our efforts toward helping industry partners improve their processes, which helps Canadian companies and the economy, and at the same time it generates revenue which we will put toward the acquisition of new infrastructure that will help Carleton become a research leader. It’s a big circle and the sky is the limit in terms of who we can work with and what we can accomplish.”

Mr. Smith didn’t simply sit back and wait for clients to come knocking. He does not believe in a “build-it-and-they-will-come” business mindset. Although his own research program focuses on using mass spectrometry for medical applications, such as looking at how proteins react to diseases like cancer and how they respond to certain treatments, Mr. Smith is also interested in creative models for research funding and monetizing the downtime when laboratory machines sit idle. So he hired Jeff Smirle to serve as the CMSC’s business manager and Mr. Smirle sent cold-call emails to several potential partners, including Broadhead, which happens to be run by a Carleton aerospace engineering graduate, Josh Larocque.

“We would not have been able to get this type of detailed information about our beer without this collaboration,” says Mr. Larocque, who uses what he learned about thermodynamics at Carleton to brew better beer and is making a special one-off Oktoberfest-style beer for the official opening of the CMSC on Sept. 23.

“We want to do everything we can to improve our product, and this sounded like a great idea from the get-go.”

The centre hopes to do similar work for other small breweries, says Mr. Smirle, who will be attending the Ontario Craft Brewers’ annual conference and suppliers marketplace in Toronto next month.

“The craft brewing industry is growing quickly,” he adds, “and our methodology for testing and analyzing food and beverage products is very transferable.”

With a PhD in cell biology, a postdoctoral fellowship at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and experience in commercialization and tech transfer under his belt, Mr. Smirle has the knowledge to help the CMSC attract — and offer guidance to — a wide array of clients.

“Part of my role will be to help other research centres in the Faculty of Science with business development,” says Mr. Smirle, “and to encourage them to have more of an outreach attitude.”

Operations manager Karl Wasslen, who did his master’s in chemistry under Mr. Smith and starred in net for Carleton’s soccer team, will offer technical support in the lab.

Broadhead isn’t the only company eager to use the facility. After the centre partnered with the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance to promote its capabilities, Mr. Smirle was contacted by a national retail chain looking to perform quality control analyses on perfume products.

One round of fee-for-service testing has been completed, with more to potentially follow. Scintrex Trace Corp., which manufactures machines used at airports to detect minute amounts of explosives and narcotics, has also signed on to work with the CSMC.

In addition to benefiting industry partners and Carleton, which has roughly three dozen professors who will use the CMSC, the lab will give Carleton students hands-on access to leading-edge equipment and they will gain insight into partnerships that are addressing contemporary concerns in medicine, agriculture and other industries.

“It’s great to be exposed to an environment where collaborations like this are happening,” says Mr. Smith. “When grad students interact with industry, it expands their horizons and they think beyond the confines of academia.”

“Any facility that encourages partnerships between campus and the community and helps university researchers develop solutions that can be applied in the real world is something that Agilent is proud to support,” says Tori Richmond, Agilent’s global director for segment marketing.

The company plans to the use the CMSC as a showcase for new models of mass spectrometry equipment, which will help the centre remain at the front of its field.

“This makes us immediately competitive with everybody else,” says Mr. Smith. “We have the capacity to do what anybody else can do.”