Coming to Life:
The Story of
A Canadian company focused
on life sciences imaging had
to reinvent itself in order to
The story of Spectral Applied Research begins with an ending.
In the 1990s, I worked with a group of
scientists at ISL, the Instrument Services Lab, of CRESTech (the Centre for
Research in Earth and Space Technology),
which at the time was a collection of labs
within the Ontario Centres of Excellence.
Together, our team had expertise and
a long history in spectroscopy, optical
instrument calibration, remote sensing
and space optics. However, changes in the
centre’s mandate led to ISL’s closure.
Faced with layoffs, the group arranged
an employee buyout of the lab along with
its existing contracts. With little to no
entrepreneurial experience, we set out to
start our own business in the hope that
science smarts could translate into business success. The company started in
2000 with seven employees.
Finding our way
We struggled at first to understand
markets and to develop a name for
ourselves. Fortunately, we inherited a
high-profile contract to build and test
a space telescope that was to fly on the
MOST (microvariability and oscillations of stars) micro-satellite mission.
Spectral technologist Tony Dudley cools down a space simulator with liquid nitrogen.
A cell sample is
Headquarters: Richmond Hill,
Products: Confocal spinning disks,
laser merge modules, spectral confocal
systems, laser illuminators
President & CEO: Richard Berman
Number of employees: 25
The purpose of the MOST mission was
to study the internal structure of distant
stars by measuring the emitted light
fluctuations to a precision of one part in
a million, creating a time series of up to
several weeks in length. The stringent
performance requirements of the mission
pushed the team hard.
Despite a number of setbacks, the final
product was a huge success. Launched
in 2003, it long outlived its short design
lifetime and became a source of data for
many groundbreaking research papers
in the field over the past decade.
With the success of the MOST
launch also came the daunting question: What’s next? Although we had a
number of small contracts, the prospect
of a future based on space optics seemed
risky. Space optics depends on funding from the Canadian Space Agency,
and funding opportunities were limited
and difficult to predict. So, in 2005, the
founders agreed to pursue other markets
and to move from a contract R&D firm
to a business that creates and retains
its intellectual property. Essentially, we
decided to become a production company, designing and building our own
internally developed products.
The path to that business model was
by no means short or direct, nor was the
discovery of our current market niche.
Early on, we developed a clever fiber-optic coupled spectrometer based on
a tunable etalon. The small handheld
device had an astonishing 10-pm resolution and could acquire data from the
ultraviolet to the near-infrared. However,
it was difficult to make and the margins
were slim. When sales failed to take off
as quickly as expected, we abandoned the
product in search of other opportunities.
12 | OPN Optics & Photonics News