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Calgary company finds success by testing the international waters

From university colleagues to company co‑founders, Emily Hicks, David Lloyd and Robert Mayall are working to identify cleaner, safer water with their water quality analysis firm, FREDsense Technologies Corp.

FREDsense was founded after the team competed at the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM), a worldwide synthetic biology competition where participants compete to develop novel concepts in engineering biology.

Their award‑winning idea? Engineered bacteria to detect contaminants in oil sands tailings ponds.

FREDsense quickly realized that arsenic testing was a better focus than tailings ponds. Many utilities have arsenic in their drinking water, and while they may have active remediation, they cannot quickly measure progress.

The company’s made‑in‑Alberta water quality testing technology is quick, accurate, reliable, portable and easy to use, analyzing water quality by detecting chemicals in real time.

Currently able to test water for arsenic, acidity, iron, manganese, and most recently SARS‑CoV‑2 RNA, FREDsense is expanding its sensor suite to detect more contaminants of concern to the industry.

Emily Hicks
Emily Hicks, President and co‑founder of FREDsense

And with the help of the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service (TCS), the company is giving the world access to its solution.

In 2020, the company received funding from the TCS’s CanExport SMEs program to develop and implement a go‑to‑market strategy for the delivery of an arsenic testing system in the U.S. The CanExport program helped FREDsense identify and acquire early customers, local partners, distributors and supply‑chain groups. The result? It successfully entered the U.S. market and increased its revenues. It’s also in the process of exploring the Australian market.

“For early‑stage companies like FREDsense, working with the Trade Commissioner Service helps expose them to opportunities for strategic partnerships,” explains Yvonne Gruenthaler, a Trade Commissioner based in Detroit. “It helps them access markets that present unique challenges that can foster more innovation,” and isan opportunity for Canada to bring something to the world that didn’t exist before.”

Gruenthaler remembers her excitement in initially hearing about FREDsense and what it was offering to the market. “There was such a level of enthusiasm from the interlocutors and the stakeholders that were telling me about FREDsense. …When you hear that kind of buzz, that is a company you want to find out about. That is a company you want to learn about. That’s a company that is likely going to be of interest to global markets.”

Yvonne Gruenthaler
Yvonne Gruenthaler, Trade Commissioner based in Detroit

Support from Trade Commissioners has been key to the company’s growth and success.

In December of 2020, the Port of San Diego approved a multi‑year pilot project with FREDsense to develop a portable field‑testing sensor to monitor stormwater and provide real‑time metals analysis. “This partnership was facilitated by the TCS from the beginning to the end,” says Emily Hicks, President and co‑founder of FREDsense. “And while FREDSense had to do heavy lifting, the TCS certainly opened doors for us in the first place.”

San Diego‑based Trade Commissioner Mario Diez worked with FREDsense to provide intelligence about the Port and to help with the selection process for partners and suppliers. Diez also assisted the company with presentations and partnership negotiations.

“From a success perspective, some of the unique opportunities that we’ve had for international projects have been critical,” Hicks says.

“International opportunities can be really challenging and there’s so much to consider,” she notes. But by driving companies like hers to solve different problems in different markets, “they can also enable growth in the business and allow you to really expand much faster than just staying in Canada.”

Nicole Harbauer
Nicole Harbauer, Trade Commissioner in Calgary

According to Nicole Harbauer, the Trade Commissioner responsible for clean technologies in the Alberta and Northwest Territories region, the TCS’s greatest value is the myriad of international connections that its network abroad can provide.

“Companies may develop a solution or technology to address a problem in their own backyard or in a specific market, but may not be aware of all the global opportunities or applications. Having our Trade Commissioner in the market who knows the market inside out and has their own network of local connections — like regulatory officials, potential partners or clients — that really is invaluable.”

Harbauer notes that Trade Commissioners in more than 20 cities in over a dozen countries have been in contact with FREDsense, and maintains that the TCS will be there for the company and other businesses in the future. “The relationship is always continuing. …We’re always keeping an eye out for different opportunities, and we always have our client companies in mind for these opportunities.”

For her part, Hicks says that leveraging the connections made by FREDsense through the TCS, as well as participating in virtual roadshows, has been especially important during the pandemic as utilities have become harder to reach. “We will definitely keep building on TCS support as we move forward. The TCS is critical to helping us expand thoughtfully and with our eyes wide open.”

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