As of May 27, 2020, there have been 2,925,466 infected COVID-19 patients reported worldwide, with a total of 355,727 deaths. The rapid progression of the COVID-19 pandemic has raised concerns regarding the short supply of medical equipment needed to control the rate of transmission and mortality. In most developing countries, transporting vaccines can be difficult without the proper storage technologies, since vaccines and equipment can spoil in high temperatures. In fact, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimate of $20 million in annual product loss is due to improper refrigeration.
As a precautionary measure, the National Vaccine Storage and Handling Guidelines for Immunization Providers state that vaccines must be stored in a cold chain to preserve the potency of the vaccine for immunization, and to prevent vaccine spoilage. With many vaccines reacting to temperatures above two to eight degrees Celsius, preserving them during long durations of transportation creates a pressing healthcare issue.
That’s why Alexis Chabot-Tremblay and Rosemarie St-Yves Ferron of Cigogne Technologies have teamed up with the Université de Sherbrooke to create a safe and lightweight technology for storing vaccines. As part of Mitacs’s Accelerate Entrepreneur program, the two students are researchers, as well as co-owners of Cigogne Technologies. Through this program, the student entrepreneurs undertake research that both furthers the company and their graduate work — as well as providing potential career and business opportunities for themselves and others.
A cooler solution
Traditionally, ice packs were used for short-term transportation to prevent vaccines from spoiling. However, sensitive vaccines require a temperature between two and eight degrees Celsius for long periods of time and ice packs can easily melt, causing the surrounding storage area to increase in temperature and affect the vaccine’s potency and ability to immunize. Similarly, ice packs risk freezing and spoiling vaccines if they’re cooled below two degrees Celsius.
“It’s hard to know if a vaccine is frozen without temperature tracking, which is rarely used in vaccine delivery. That is why we are working on an actively refrigerated compartment to maintain optimal temperatures without freezing the cargo itself,” says Chabot-Tremblay.
With the use of a “tailored-adsorption” method, the refrigerated compartments can adjust to the required temperatures of any given environment. By using external heat, Chabot-Tremblay and St-Yves Ferron are also focused on making the product affordable, lightweight and user-friendly to fit many medical drones.
In response to the current pandemic, the two entrepreneurs are also focusing on delivering vaccines to remote locations where medical attention is not as easily available as in urban areas of Canada.
“In developing countries, high ambient temperatures, difficult geography, lack of transport infrastructures, and human and financial resources lead to poor conservation of vaccines and other heat-sensitive medical products. The combination of these problems results in long and challenging transportation, in addition to poor refrigeration from the ice packs,” says St-Yves Ferron.
Innovators of today, leaders of tomorrow
As both co-owners of and interns at their own company, Alexis Chabot-Tremblay and Rosemarie St-Yves Ferron have faced a few challenges along the way.
“Being in our position, we have to make sure we meet the needs of our future clients and translate them into technical specifications for our research. This challenges us to frequently update and adjust the requirements; our project is constantly evolving, which is the source motivation for our team,” says Chabot-Tremblay, and St-Yves Ferron agrees.
With the opportunity to utilize both their studies and entrepreneurial skills, the Accelerate Entrepreneur internship allows them to gain experience while helping alleviate the current public health situation.
“During the last two years of our curriculum in mechanical engineering at the Université de Sherbrooke, we worked on a major design project in which we developed the first prototype of our vaccine carrier. We also took entrepreneurship classes in the last semesters to start developing business skills. With this background and the help of our research group, Createk, we felt well prepared for the internship,” says Chabot-Tremblay.
Collaborating with Mitacs has been a rewarding process for the young entrepreneurs. After winning the technological entrepreneurship competition, Concours Createk, Chabot-Tremblay and St-Yves Ferron realized the viability and potential impact their project had, which motivated them to work with Mitacs to pursue it. As part of the Accelerate Entrepreneur internship, the young entrepreneurs gain valuable experience that provides practical training in the early stages of their careers.
“We met our local Mitacs representative at the Concours Createk and they showed us the possibility to continue our studies at a graduate level while working on our company R&D with the essential funding for it. We strongly recommend the Accelerate Entrepreneur program for any young entrepreneur wanting to achieve research and business goals,” says St-Yves Ferron.
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, and the Government of Saskatchewan 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: BD@mitacs.ca.