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Progress through innovation: three companies show how it's done.

Progress Through Innovation, the theme of this year's Canadian Society for Chemical Engineering Conference, to be held in Toronto, October 18-21, is more than just a slogan for many engineering firms. This article looks at three young Canadian companies and the innovative ideas that got them started.

Minnovex Technologies

When Glen Kosick set up Minnovex Technologies in April 1988, he had one clear goal - to bring new technology to the mineral processing industry. He had a strong operational background, and knew that thousands of hours were being wasted with tedious operator data sheets, time consuming metallurgy reports, manual number crunching for month end reports, and so on. Putting all his asserts on the line, and with the help of other experts, like Glen Dobby, now the company's vice-president, technological development, the firm developed expertise in front flotation, process control, management information systems and dewatering systems. But how to bring this knowledge to the market?

"The first major challenge," said Kosick, "was so develop a product or service that was needed in the industry." It may sound obvious, but many entrepreneurs have learned the hard way that even if you build a better mousetrap, the world won't necessarily beat a path to your door. It has to be concieved it needs a better mousetrap, and that it can afford it.

Kidd Creek Mines, Timmins, Ont., was convinced. It signed up as the first major client. Minnovex build a portable pilot plant to do on-site froth flotation circuit simulation. This computer-controlled pilot plant enabled kidd Creek to evaluate operation and design variables rapidly, without disrupting operations at the main plant.

It was this same expertise that led to Minnovex landing its first overseas contract, with Freeport, Indonesia. Minnovex has done extensive on-site column flotation pilot plant work for this copper and gold producer, which is poised to expand over the next five years to become the single largest copper and gold producer in the world.

Using the results of its pilot plant work, Minnovex has designed two new copper cleaner circuits to improve the efficiency of the existing plant. Minnovex has also designed new circuits for the planned expansion. Nine new 10-foot diameter columns, each 52 feet tall, will be added and four eight-foot diameter columns will be retrofitted.

Freeport also bought Minnovex's expert system. ColumEx, a real-time relational database information management system. This system not only eliminates much of the old-fashioned paper-work, it also allows for easy "what-if" analysis so plant operating processes can be modified quickly to improve production. It was designed in modules, so that it can be adapted to meet the needs of small to large operations.

By March 1992, Minnovex had carried out over 50 projects for 35 clients. Its annual revenues had grown from $35,000 in its first year to over $1 million today. In January of this year it started a Chilean subsidiary. Growth could have been even faster, added Kosick, but that would have meant getting external financing. Instead, the company is now debt-free, had created seven new products and services in the past four years, become known internationally and is able to put 30% of its revenue back into research and development to stay on top of new technology.

Minnovex had been doubly honored by the Canadian mineral processing industry when Glen Dobby (in 1989) and Glen Kosick (in 1992) were independently awarded the Canadian Mineral Processors Special Achievement Award for their Contributions to the industry.

Zeton Inc.

The people at Zelton Inc. take the old adage, "Good things come in small packages", seriously. They are experts in the custom design and construction of pilot plants and small scale systems for existing production and research facilities. The projects they build are made from small modules that are mounted on skids for convenient shipping and assembly. Zeton supplies the plants on a turnkeys basis, taking responsibility for everything from engineering, procurement and assembly through to testing, installation and start-up.

From its start in 1986, Zeton has grown from serving a handful of Canadian clients to working for 30 corporations and government agencies worldwide. It often competes with the in-house construction or engineering units of large companies. But many of these firms, such as Dow Canada, for whom Zeton built a high-density polyethylene laboratory scale reactor unit and a wastewater treatment plant, recognize that because of Zeton's experience with small scale systems, it can build them more quickly, efficiently and inexpensively than might be possible in-house.

"Our capabilities," said vice-president David Beckman, "include petroleum refinery operations, chemical processing, synthetic fuels development, polymerization, catalysis, specialty chemicals, separation technologies and environmental waste processing. We also have experience with many different reactor designs for catalyst testing and polymerizations."

This message is one he has been carrying abroad successfully: Ninety of Zeton's sales are exported. The fixed fluidized bed pilot plant shown was made for a European customer in 1990. It is used for testing fluid catalytic cracking (FCC) catalysts; the unit simulates the operation of a commercial refinery's catalytic cracking unit. The pilot plant gives the client quick results on the effects of new feed types or new catalyst batches being processed in a refinery. The reactor has a catalyst capacity of 400 grams. This automated, computer-controlled plant provides complete data monitoring, acquisition, storage and analysis.

One of the challenges of running a company like Zeton is maintaining a flow of business so that all parts of the company are busy at the same time. To do so, Beckman's strategy has been to "provide a high quality product and ensure the customers are satisfied." But perhaps equally important, to "market the products worldwide, not limiting efforts to the Canadian market."

Mirotech Inc.

Mirotech has been so innovative that when president Miro Milinkovic was asked how many competitors he has, he replied: "None!"

Mirotech, established in 1986, developed a new technique called Nickel Vapor Deposition. A major breakthrough in making shapes and molds, it uses a cloud of gas to form pure nickel shapes on a heated surface (either plastic or metallic. When nickel carbonyl gas is passed over a heated mandrel, or master shape, it forms an exact nickel duplicate. The surface thus created is extremely durable; the deposition of the nickel is uniform no matter how complicated the shape. The process is 20 to 30 times faster than traditional electrodeposition methods, since no intermediate conductive layer is needed. Finally, the quality of the duplications is unsurpassed - it can duplicate leather grain, detailed engravings, etc.

The list of uses for the new technology seems endless, and Mirotech's 20 clients come from the plastics, automotive, aerospace and defence industries. Applications for mold-making include: compression molds (for products like plastic sinks, auto and aircraft parts), reaction injection molds for polyurethane foam, and molds for rotational castings. High-resolution shapes for foundry patterns, laser mirrors, printing plates, extrusion dies, and fresnel lenses are just a few examples of the shape-making potential of nickel vapor deposition technology. Customers include Boeing Commercial Airplanes, Seattle, WA, and National Composites, South Bend, IN.

A determined entrepreneur, Milinkovic initially financed the firm himself and has chosen to grow at a moderate pace so that he can keep working on developing new technology while solicitating clients. Even so, his revenues have grown to over $1 million annually and he now has a staff of 11.

One of his biggest challenges has been to educate venture capitalists and bankers, who often have no scientific background and thus cannot fully appreciate emerging technologies. Despite this frustration, and the many others that go into starting any new business, Milinkovic is upbeat as he offers the following words of advice to budding entrepreneurs: * Be stubborn - don't give up; * Arrange financing; * Have an idea in which you believe and be totally committed to it; * Have support from your immediate family

Innovative ideas:

The key to success?

Innovative ideas are essential ingredient for success. But as these three companies demonstrate, to progress beyond the dreaming stage, ideas must be siezed by someone with the business acumen to bring them to the market and the determination to succeed.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Chemical Institute of Canada
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Minnovex Technologies, Zeton Inc., Mirotech Inc.
Author:Frank, Tema A.; Shaw, John M.
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Date:Jul 1, 1992
Previous Article:W(h)ither chemical engineering.
Next Article:Managing the nation, managing the business, managing the technology and managing the human resource.

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