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October 2021

Innovator combats algal bloom that may kill fish

At a glance
The team

Jason Deglint, Mitacs Accelerate Entrepreneur fellow at University of Waterloo; Blue Lion Labs co-founder Katie Thomas; and academic supervisors Drs. Alexander Wong and John Zelek, both from Waterloo’s Department of Systems Design Engineering.

The challenge

Quickly analyze samples of algae bloom in water, helping to solve a problem that costs an estimated $2 billion in the loss of fish to the aquaculture industry.

The solution

A smart, low-cost system that uses machine learning and a digital microscope for early detection of harmful algae, reducing water sampling time from days to minutes.

The outcome

The creation of a start-up that has established partnerships with a global marine technology group and is on track to commercialize a system to monitor microscopic marine algae by 2022.

Small business entrepreneur and postdoctoral fellow at University of Waterloo uses machine learning to develop first-of-its-kind technology that has the potential to fight aquaculture’s problem with harmful algae blooms, which injure fish.

When 31-year-old Jason Deglint was completing his PhD in systems design engineering at University of Waterloo, he decided to tackle a problem that costs an estimated $2 billion in damages and losses in the aquaculture industry: the harmful algae blooms that kill fish.

Deglint dedicated his thesis research to developing a smart, low-cost prototype imaging system to analyze samples in the lab. With support from the Mitacs Accelerate Entrepreneur program, his efforts resulted in the creation of Blue Lion Labs, a new small business based in Waterloo, Ontario.

“Essentially, if fish farms want to know what types of organisms are in their water today, the sample ends up on a slide with a human looking at it,” Deglint explains, noting that many samples are shipped off-site and results can take up to one week.

“It’s a tedious, time-consuming task that’s prone to human error. Even the best-case scenario of an on-site technician takes three to four hours to return a result, meaning fish farms typically sample from one location, once a day.”

Using a machine learning software and a custom digital microscope, his disruptive system automatically identifies harmful algae in water. This means that the time it takes to identify problems is drastically reduced, ultimately saving time, money, and fish lives.

How can algae impact a thriving aquaculture industry?

Aquaculture is a large and growing industry in Canada that drives economic growth and supports job opportunities across the country. The sector represents approximately one third of Canada’s total fisheries value and 20 percent of its seafood production.

But harmful algae can get in the way and cause serious damage to fish farms, either by getting clogged in fish gills and suffocating them, or by growing out of control and producing toxins.

Detecting harmful algae enables early intervention, allowing farms to erect protective bubble curtains or skirts for example, which significantly reduces potential losses. With the system being developed by Deglint and Blue Lion Labs co-founder Katie Thomas, they will be able to do constant, near real-time monitoring, accurately identifying algae within minutes.

The process is tricky, says Deglint, because algae can be perceived as good or bad depending on the specific situation. “Our innovation lies in our machine learning software which is learning to detect many types of harmful algae and therefore serves as an early warning system,” he says.

Once fully developed, the system will be capable of 24/7 monitoring in multiple locations.

Partnerships and recognition help start-up bloom

Like many new entrepreneurs, Deglint counted on the support of key partners to turn his innovation into a business. “In the fall of 2019, I was wrapping up my PhD and was concerned about how I would support myself financially while continuing to have my full focus on Blue Lion Labs,” he remembers. That was when he learned about the Mitacs offering.

“Thanks to the Mitacs Accelerate Entrepreneur program, I took a leap of faith to continue pursuing Blue Lion Labs after my PhD. This has allowed us to withstand the global pandemic, find additional pre-seed funding through Next Canada, and participate in a global aquaculture accelerator called HATCH.”

In addition, the company recently caught the eye of global marine technology and solutions group OTAQ, which announced a US$ 300,000 equity investment in the start-up. Under the terms of the agreement, OTAQ will combine Blue Lion Labs’ software expertise with its own hardware to develop a system to monitor phytoplankton — microscopic marine algae — at fish farms. The expectation is to make it commercially available by 2022.

“This partnership is a dream come true,” says Deglint, who recently hired a third employee to help refine his company’s software, including the development of computer dashboards that will eventually be used by fish farms to monitor water quality in multiple locations at once. “It’s the realization of my vision to use my skill set to give back to the world.”

In recognition of his efforts to advance the smart monitoring platform through his small business, Deglint recently won the 2021 Mitacs Global Impact Entrepreneur Award, which was presented at a virtual ceremony.

“This award represents the support and encouragement from so many different people and organizations during our journey into entrepreneurship,” says Deglint. “We are extremely humbled and grateful. It’s taught us that by dedicating ourselves to a cause and by having the support of others, amazing things can happen.”

Mitacs’s programs receive funding from multiple partners across Canada. We thank the Government of Canada, the Government of Alberta, the Government of British Columbia, Research Manitoba, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, Innovation PEI, the Government of Quebec, Fonds de recherche du Québec – Nature et technologies, the Government of Saskatchewan, and the Government of Yukon for supporting us to foster innovation and economic growth throughout the country.

Do you have a business challenge that could benefit from a research solution? If so, contact Mitacs today to discuss partnership opportunities: