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Swimming upstream: Hamilton tech start-up aims to keep Ontario’s lakes and rivers safe

Ontario’s lakes are busy destinations in the summer for recreational swimmers. But, like any public water source, these watering holes are prone to bacterial and viral contamination, a major concern for public health agencies — and those who enjoy using them. A Hamilton-based start-up, InnovoGENE, is developing new technology that tests bacteria in recreational waters faster than existing methods.

The company is a spin-off from McMaster University and was created “organically,” says InnovoGENE CEO Kha Tram. It all started when Kha was completing his PhD at McMaster and was looking to develop technology that could quickly identify E. coli in food. He realized the same technology could be used to rapidly test bacteria in water — and InnovoGENE was born.

“The current method for testing E. coli bacteria in recreational waters is by collecting a water sample and shipping it to an accredited lab,” says Kha. The sample is then reviewed overnight, with the turnaround time being 24 to 72 hours. InnovoGENE’s technology “eliminates the wait time,” cites Kha. “City staff can take our kit and go to the site and get the results in a couple of hours.”

The company partnered with Mitacs’ Accelerate internship program to bring McMaster researcher Dingran Chang on board to conduct field testing. “As a small start-up, securing funding can be difficult. Collaborating with Mitacs allowed us to bring on a skilled researcher who has been instrumental in collecting water samples and analyzing them,” says Kha. “I don’t think the project would have progressed without his help. His research is helping validate the technology.”

Since the Accelerate project, InnovoGENE has been forming partnerships with local municipalities to analyze civic sites. The company is currently working with Niagara Region Public Health to study four of local swimming sites. Kha says he hopes one day the technology will be available worldwide:

“Water is an important resource. People shouldn’t have to worry if they’re going to get sick from it when they go for a swim. Our technology can help municipalities to quickly determine whether the water is safe, warn the public earlier, when needed, and allow people to enjoy our beautiful lakes and rivers.”


Mitacs would like to thank the Government of Canada, along with Alberta Innovates, the Government of British Columbia, Research Manitoba, the Government of New Brunswick, the Research & Development Corporation of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, the Government of Prince Edward Island, the Government of Quebec, and the Government of Saskatchewan for their support of Mitacs Accelerate.