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the challenge contest

Gordon McArthur is president and co-founder of Forerunner Research, which sells devices that measure gas – in particular, carbon dioxide – in the atmosphere and trapped in soil.PAUL DARROW/The Globe and Mail

Forerunner Research is one of the four semi-finalists in The Globe and Mail's Small Business Challenge Contest. The 2012 contest drew more than 1,000 entries, and a panel of 9 judges selected the semi-finalists. The winner of the $100,000 business grant will be announced in September. The other three semi-finalists are Livestock Water Recyling Inc., RecycleSmart Solutions Inc. and Northern Canadian Supplies Ltd. To view photos and a multimedia presentation of the four, go to

Forerunner Research Inc.'s technology has been places, from Antarctica to the Arctic. For two years, the Dartmouth, N.S., company has been providing wireless gas-flux measurement systems to researchers and energy resource development companies.

In layman's terms, that means they sell devices that measure gas – in particular, carbon dioxide – in the atmosphere and trapped in soil.

This information helps environmental researchers, policy makers and oil and gas companies measure CO2 and develop strategies for improving safety and environmental standards, says Gordon McArthur, president and co-founder of Forerunner Research, a company that grew out of a research project at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, about 160 kilometres northeast of Halifax.

"A big challenge for researchers and resource developers is knowing what is normal," Mr. McArthur says. "If you don't have an idea of baseline then you're going to have a hard time figuring out the impact of, say, deteriorating permafrost or oil recovery activities, on CO2 levels leaking out of the soil."

Forerunner Research isn't the only company that provides systems for measuring soil gas flux. What sets it apart from the competition, Mr. McArthur says, is the fact that its core technology – a "forced diffusion chamber" – has no moving parts, uses less energy and can run on a solar panel.

"Before we developed our technology, the status quo was very heavy on power usage and had moving parts," he says.

"This made it not well suited to deployments in rugged and winter conditions."

What the company needs

Forerunner Research is currently a purely scientific instrumentation company with annual revenue of about $175,000. But the bigger vision, Mr. McArthur says, is to provide data reporting and analysis services, in addition to selling instruments, to the company's customers in academia, government, and the oil and gas industry.

To achieve this bigger vision, Forerunner Research needs to boost revenue. Mr. McArthur, who has been looking after sales on top of managing the business, says the company needs to hire a full-time sales person to create a steady revenue stream that will finance research and development.

The company also needs to upgrade its laboratory and environmental chamber. The latter is where the company calibrates its devices before sending them into the field. Forerunner Research currently calibrates an average of 1.5 forced diffusion chambers each day. By upgrading the chamber and adding five calibration stations, that number will increase to 30 per day, Mr. McArthur says.

"We have the space to build that infrastructure now," he says. "Making these changes will allow us to grow our business and put more money, time and resources into innovating and creating cutting-edge products."

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