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Picomole’s John Cormier with device (NAUMAN FAROOQI)
Picomole’s John Cormier with device (NAUMAN FAROOQI)

CASE STUDY

Move to Moncton gives company a big lift Add to ...

THE CHALLENGE

After three years of research and development, Picomole Instruments Inc. president John Cormier was excited in 2008 to unveil his portable infrared breath-analysis device.

The ultra-sensitive instrument provided a fast and accurate method of detecting biomarkers for various diseases, such as lung and breast cancer and liver disease. The device offered the potential of a competitive advantage over existing technology in terms of portability, efficiency, ease of use and cost effectiveness.

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The announcement, however, could not have come at a worse time, with the beginning of the meltdown in financial markets. The economic news drowned out not only the announcement but also any chances of raising money for the next round of development for the device.

With no access to capital, the venture stalled. With the company at the time based in Edmonton, Dr. Cormier decided to look at relocating his venture. With a potential collaboration partner in Quebec City, he made the move with a skeleton team and set up shop. Unfortunately, the move did not go well; language and cultural barriers made establishing roots difficult.

By the fall of 2010, Dr. Cormier realized the move was not working and had to make a difficult decision to yet again relocate his venture to more fertile grounds. But where should he go?

THE BACKGROUND

Dr. Cormier left his native Moncton in 1987 to pursue a bachelor’s degree in physics at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. He pursued graduate studies at the University of Toronto, earning a Ph.D in physics in 2002, and soon after joined the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Washington, a U.S. government entity mandated with developing standards for measurements.

After 9/11, the institute faced budgetary cuts and division managers were exploring ways to connect to medical research, after noticing that the National Institutes of Health did not have its budget cut.

Dr. Cormier thought that the technology he had developed for air quality and atmospheric research might be adaptable for breath analysis, which could detect various kinds of diseases. He found that available breath-analysis technologies were expensive, time-consuming and not portable, and envisioned how his infrared technology could be made portable, fast and inexpensive – prerequisites for clinical adoption.

Dr. Cormier took his idea to NIST management but received a lukewarm response as they felt that development of such a device was not something within its mandate. Lacking financial support and discouraged by the response,  Dr. Cormier moved to Edmonton in the fall of 2003, where he joined Synodon, a startup oil and gas pipeline leak-detection company

While working at the startup, he suggested development of his breath-analysis device to the chief executive officer, who encouraged him to start up a company himself to pursue his idea.

In April, 2005, he quit and established Picomole Instruments, setting up shop at an incubator facility in Edmonton to develop the device on a full-time basis. Seed money came from his savings, friends and family.

The next two years were spent putting together a technical team, performing computer simulations of the idea and collecting market data.

In 2007, on the advice of his mentor and chief financial officer, John Pinsent, he entered the VenturePrize business plan competition, an award originally created by the Edmonton Economic Development Corp. and subsequently managed by TEC Edmonton. Picomole won the grand prize valued at $108,000 in cash and prizes.

The win provided a lot of exposure, and more money started to pour in. in. Soon after, Dr. Cormier closed a financing round to avoid further dilution of ownership and focused his attention on the next step in product development.

The money, however, was quickly used up in the development of the prototype, which was unveiled just as the markets began to dry up. That led to the unsuccessful move to Quebec City.

THE SOLUTION

Dr. Cormier had regularly returned to his native Moncton where  he and his wife had family, and had seen an economic transformation, with the city becoming a choice destination for some tech startups.

Given both the family ties and the economic promise, Moncton became a natural choice for relocation.

From late 2010 to early 2011, Dr. Cormier made several trips there to pitch his idea in front of potential investors; upon securing funding, he moved there in May, 2011. The move not only provided a much-needed financial injection but also a healthy network of government and other entrepreneurs interested in lending their support.

THE RESULT

The move has worked out well for Picomole.

Since inception, the company has raised a total of $4-million from angels, family and friends.

Picomole recently received a U.S. patent for its device and just announced the hiring of a slate of experienced management executives, bringing the total number of employees to six.

It has also collected its first clinical data demonstrating the instrument’s ability to detect lung cancer, is putting plans in place to obtain regulatory approval for the device, and has been approached by multinational corporations interested in acquiring the technology.

Dr. Cormier’s advice to entrepreneurs is to push themselves out of their comfort zones, quit their jobs and focus exclusively on a new venture. He also believes that entrepreneurs should start their businesses in their own hometowns, where there are substantial resources and support networks.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Nauman Farooqi is a professor and head of the department of commerce in theRon Joyce Centre for Business Studiesof Mount Allison University .

This is the latest in a regular series of case studies by a rotating group of business professors from across the country. They appear every Friday on the Report on Small Business website.

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