Emily Hicks, BHSc’13
Early Career Achievement
Co-founder and president of FREDsense, Corporate Knights Top 30 Under 30 for Sustainability, Creative Destruction Lab grad, high school mentor
Running a biotechnology startup is tough. Even for a space panda.
Those who remember this 29-year-old — before she and her team managed to win dozens of awards, speak at numerous international conferences and generate more than $2 million of investment and grant funding — might remember her role in Storybook Theatre’s The Revenge of the Space Pandas, seeing her on stage as a competitive Highland dancer, or watching her play the oboe or trumpet in various symphonic bands.
Emily Hicks may self-identify as a “bit of an introvert,” but give her a stage and this young alumna will crush whatever role she takes on. In fact, it was her theatre background that landed her a spot on UCalgary’s iGEM team back in 2009, and it was this seminal experience that convinced her that she didn’t want to be a physician or a surgeon but, rather, to pursue biomedical sciences and anything to do with iGEM, which stands for the Internationally Genetically Engineered Machine competition.
“I used to say that iGEM is what I remember about my undergrad degree — and school was the thing that I did in the middle,” Hicks confesses, grinning.
When Hicks first saw a poster for iGEM, a global synthetic biology competition aimed at undergrads, headquartered at MIT in Boston, she thought it sounded “more fun than entering data in a spreadsheet, which is what a lot of summer research jobs entail.”
Without the typical prerequisites on her CV, such as a first-year chemistry course, Hicks didn’t think she stood a chance. Parlaying her theatre background, however, she convinced the selection committee that she could do the “outreach stuff.”
What the committee didn’t know was just how passionate Hicks was about science and what a firecracker she is on stage. And it is this killer combination — this bridge between “doing” science and “presenting” science — that makes Hicks so extraordinary. Hooked on iGEM (Hicks competed five times with a team that nabbed more awards than any other in the competition’s history), it was her final project that she, Robert Mayall, BHSc’13, PhD’19, Lisa Oberding BSc’13, MSc’16, and David Lloyd MSc’13 had honed across three iGEM competitions that finally evolved into FREDsense.
Meet FRED — the Field Ready Electrochemical Detector. FRED combines biology and engineering to detect chemicals in water. Housed in a 6,500-sq.-ft. lab in northeast Calgary, FREDsense involves a team of 14 who test, design, build and assemble portable field kits full of easy-to-use sensors that can detect chemicals such as arsenic, lead, manganese or acidity in water by using genetically modified bacteria. FREDsense also has the ability to customize the biosensor platform for other water-borne chemicals and contaminants.
What differentiates FREDsense from similar technology is its speed, ease and mobility, explains Hicks. “There are lots of other systems out there, but you can wait two or three weeks for the data. With FRED, you can have the data in a little over an hour, and training someone isn’t complicated.
“Let say you’re looking at an oil spill, or at a city that wants to measure its arsenic level. You want to know now, not in two weeks. That’s the ‘why’ in our pitch; that’s what makes FRED different.”
Turns out that, not only has amateur theatre helped Hicks get to where she is today, but so has all the original research, grant proposals and synthesizing of information that she did during her Bachelor of Health Sciences. Until a few months ago, FREDsense relied exclusively on grants, private investment (thank you family, friends, Singularity University, Creative Destruction Lab and others), sponsorship and successful pitch competitions (dozens of them) to pay its staff.
Most wouldn’t call it a strategy or much of a business model, but that’s precisely how Hicks and her co-founders kickstarted FREDsense. “We didn’t know anything about starting a business, but we knew how to win a competition,” confesses Hicks. “So, we went to every one that had a cash prize that amounted to more than our airfare. And that money started FRED.”
As did a button they placed on their website that read, “Do You Want to Pilot Our Technology?” Nothing odd about that, other than there “was no technology,” laughs Hicks, who just wanted to see who would click on it.
An American utilities company took the bait, “and that’s how they became our first customer,” says Hicks, grinning. Always grinning, like she has the best job on the planet.
In fact, it was only a year ago that the company landed its first major contract with the Federal Government of Canada and only a few months since the first product has been launched.
“It takes a long time to start a business — far longer than I thought,” says Hicks. “We are still funding FRED off grants and other investments, but, when I think about setting up this business around my parents’ kitchen table five years ago and buying equipment off eBay, and then I look at our team of 14 and our lab . . . it’s really happening. And I get to tell the world our story — how cool is that?
And Hicks remains thrilled about reshaping the business landscape with FRED’s story.
“To actually see our device, that began as a school science project, work not only in a lab, but in the field and give us data that it was supposed to and work the way we expected it to is so, so, exciting for me,” she says.
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Take the ultimate tour of campus with President Ed McCauley, meet the 2019 Arch Award recipients and find out what UCalgary is doing about the coming health-care crisis as our elder population grows. All this and more in the Fall/Winter 2019 Alumni Magazine.