New laser equipment at U of A gives medical technology developers a boost

Microfabrication tools will allow U of A and industry inventors across Western Canada to design and test precision medical devices at rapid speeds.


Vivian Mushahwar, director of Smart Technology Innovations at the University of Alberta, says a $1.5-million investment by Western Economic Diversification Canada in laser-based microfabrication equipment at the university will help build the country’s health technology sector. (Photo: Laughing Dog)

In the world of precision medicine, really, really small is a really big deal.

That’s certainly the case for western Canadian entrepreneurs who have big ideas for tiny medical devices, thanks to a new investment from Western Economic Diversification Canada (WD) in a University of Alberta facility.

Medical device developers now have access to $1.5 million in new laser-based microfabrication equipment at Smart Technology (ST) Innovations, the non-profit business arm of the U of A’s SMART (Sensory Motor Adaptive Rehabilitation Technology) Network.

The new equipment—known as a laser microfabrication suite—allows inventors to design and test prototypes for everything from medical implants to lab-on-a-chip technology in a fraction of the time it takes with traditional methods. 

“This new equipment allows us to expand our capabilities and the services that we provide, not only to university entrepreneurs but to local industry in Alberta and across Western Canada to build the health technology sector of our country,” said Vivian Mushahwar, professor in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, Canada Research Chair in Functional Restoration, and director of theSMART Network and ST Innovations.

Hooman Hosseinkhannazer, vice-president of business development for Norcada, said the company is pleased to gain access to the innovative new technology through ST Innovations and the University of Alberta. The Edmonton-based company specializes in nano, quantum and biopharmaceutical markets. 

“We are always interested in collaborating with our hometown research institutes and gaining access to innovative technology that can better our product offerings,” he said. 

“The prototyping, fabrication and quality-control equipment purchased under this project are going to directly change some of our tooling for biosensor technology, genomics and particle accelerator technologies.”

The initiative aligns with WD’s focus on supporting the commercialization of western Canadian technologies and applications for the global market, as well as the growth of innovative early-stage companies in Alberta.

“Alberta’s health and medical technology sector represents a major opportunity for economic growth and high quality jobs,” said the Honourable Jim Carr, Minister and Special Representative for the Prairies. “This investment is about enabling even more small- and medium-sized technology companies to push the boundaries of product development and commercialization—from more effective medical treatments to better health monitoring, all with the potential to improve the quality of life for Canadians.”

Taking health innovations from discovery to market

The suite—the only one of its kind in Western Canada—includes a femtosecond (quadrillionth of a second) laser for ultrafine cuts, an optical profiler to provide high-resolution 3D images of what has just been created, and a fibre laser micro-welder to connect small pieces together. 

“This augments the other lasers and equipment that we have in the SMART Network,” Mushahwar said. “It completes the package and makes it so fabulous, in that it’s a one-stop shop for industry partners to come in, go from one piece of equipment to the next, and develop their prototypes in a streamlined fashion.”

ST Innovations was founded in 2019 with funding from the Government of Alberta to provide access to $14 million in equipment and development services as well as expertise from more than 300 U of A SMART Network faculty and staff in six faculties. 

Current and past clients include Edmonton health-care companies Norcada and Health Gauge, B.C. medical device manufacturer StarFish Medical, and the United States Department of Defense, which is testing Mushahwar’s micro implants that stimulate the spinal cord to restore movement following a severe injury.

“We help entrepreneurs take their innovations and develop them in a meaningful way from concept to validation with a team approach that helps them position their innovation in the best way to be picked up by the marketplace,” Mushahwar explained.

“We are wholly focused on precision health technology, building intelligence into the devices to make them adaptive and predictive and able to work with their users in a very intuitive way,” she said.

Students will have access to the laser microfabrication suite as well, as part of the university’s new NSERC SMART CREATE interdisciplinary program to train employment-ready graduates.

“Now they can bring the great skills that they learn here and take them to the companies that they work with as interns,” Mushahwar said.