“Co-op offers that real-world experience you might not get from a university class. It gives students insight into how what they’re learning might apply to the real world”
Dr. Harland Brandon (BSc Co-op ‘13, PhD ‘21) is currently living in Edmonton with his wife and playing plenty of boardgames. The strategic elements and puzzle solving always bring a smile to his face. “I love strategy and quick-thinking board games and card games. I also love world-building games,” Harland smiles, adding that his favourites at the moment include ‘Terraforming Mars’ and ‘Wingspan’ among countless others living on his shelf. The passion Harland shows while using strategy and creativity playing boardgames is the same passion he brings to building not one, but two companies with his friend and business partner, Luc Roberts (BSc ‘12).
Shortly before graduation, Harland learned about a new program set up by the Government of Alberta called the GreenSTEM fellowship, which provides seed funding for recent graduates in STEM fields from an Alberta university to commercialize a research project that would help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, directly or indirectly. Coincidentally, they were working on a project which fit this funding model.
“Around the same time, a project in our lab was being filed as a provisional patent, the computational process by which we design new biosensors,” Harland explains. “Work was being done in our research lab for using a computational program to simulate how proteins can move to detect specific carbohydrates, including from starch and pectin found in plants. Breaking those down has important implications for biotechnology and various industrial fields like food production and biofuel production. Theoretically you could convert extra plant biomass into bioethanol or biodiesel. There’s no easy way to do that without measuring how much is being converted to fuel.” This project won Harland and Luc GreenSTEM funding for their next company, Allos Bioscience.
“Allos Bioscience came as a perfect storm of events,” Harland says. Allos comes from the word ‘allostery,’ a biochemistry term. Harland explains, “Allostery means that if something has an impact on one side of a molecule, it can have an effect on the other side of it.” Allos Bioscience is a biotechnology company that engineers custom protein-based biosensors for a range of industries. These custom protein-based biosensors are made using naturally occurring proteins that interact with certain molecules. “Using our technology, we can put a fluorescent dye on the protein, and as the custom biosensors bind to the protein it can change their position and therefore fluorescent properties, thus we can measure that change and see how much of a chemical is in your solution,” Harland adds. Purposes for their products could range from an on-the-spot breathalyzer for cannabis, detection of small molecules like selenium in water from waste operations, and to being involved in the healthcare industry, industrial production, and even home brewing. Right now, Allos Bioscience is focusing on two major areas: carbohydrate research, specifically studying the breakdown of starch or pectin, as well as the agri-food industry, including beer formation and brewing.
As the CEO of Allos Bioscience, Harland has taken on a managerial role, leaving the heavy science to his business partner Luc. Working mostly from home, Harland completes market research, business plans, writes grants and fills out what can feel like endless paperwork. But he knows it will all be worth it in the end. “Eventually we’ll have our product out to market, which will be very exciting,” he says. “Right now we’re still in development stage. It’s one thing to make a wheel, another to make a wheel that functions on a bike.”
Taking on the business side was completely new to Harland, but just like in a board game, everyone needs to roll the dice occasionally and take some chances. “I love to learn and challenge myself. Being a scientist and learning how to run a business has been fantastic, which is why I am really thankful for the GreenSTEM program which has allowed us to take on our passion project full time.”
Harland received his co-op designation by completing three work terms in the same lab where he completed his PhD. “Co-op offers that real-world experience you might not get from a university class. It gives students insight into how what they’re learning might apply to the real world,” he says. Having been a co-op student himself, it was fitting that Harland chose to hire co-op students to work at Allos Bioscience. They currently have three undergraduate students working for them. “We were able to get several students, well, almost free!” Harland says. The management student is being partially funded through MITACS while the two science students are fully funded through wage subsidies from BioAlberta and BioTalent Canada.
One of those students is fourth-year biochemistry student Jenna Sullivan. “I’m responsible for performing a range of laboratory techniques, including cell growth, bacterial transformation, protein purification, and more. I am also helping with research and planning for new biosensors. I came across this position on the co-op job board and thought that it would be a great experience for me!” she says. Throughout her co-op term, Jenna was able to gain experience working in a lab, but also more insight into the business side of a scientific company. “This has been a very interesting learning experience because prior to my co-op I had little knowledge as to how a biotech company was managed,” she adds.
In her first year of biochemistry at uLethbridge, SarahAnn Walker also began work this January at Allos Bioscience. “At Allos Bioscience I have helped create and quantify the company's first biosensors,” Sarah beams. “The whole experience has been great, but one moment that stands out is when we tested the company's first biosensor which I helped create. It was so exciting to see something you spent months creating actually work, especially since it was the first biosensor created at Allos Bioscience,” she says.
Seeing students gain co-op experience like he did, while living in Lethbridge, is a point of pride for Harland, and he’s certainly succeeded on all fronts. Jenna plans to pursue a master’s degree in biochemistry after finishing her undergrad. “My co-op experience has given me the confidence I need to move forward with my education and research. I am improving fundamental skills in the laboratory and I’m also becoming proficient at both reading and writing scientific papers. Overall, my experience with the co-op program and Allos Bioscience has been fantastic. I would strongly recommend the co-op program to any student who has been considering it! It’s great way to get first-hand experience and to develop skills that will be useful for years to come,” she says.
SarahAnn is also planning to continue into graduate school and feels that Allos Bioscience has prepared her for the future. She says, “Working at Allos Bioscience has been an amazing experience that made me aware of the range of opportunities in research and the biotech industry. It has helped me grow as a person, student and employee allowing me to gain confidence in my future endeavours. My supervisors Luc Roberts and Harland Brandon have been truly instrumental in this great experience as they have taught me so much and are always willing to explain and teach skills and concepts needed for my success.”
As for the future, Harland says “I would like to see the technology advance and contribute back to the community at large. Allos Bioscience is dedicated to making a positive impact on the community and hiring local is just one way to achieve that. Overall, I want to do my part in advancing science and scientific communication.”