2019 Finalist: ASTech Awards
No slowing down for innovative science entrepreneur
Turkana Inc. CEO Tim Davies brought geophysical imaging principles to the medical field to quickly and non-invasively locate and characterize biological tissues in potential breast and prostate cancer patients. This imaging technology locates tumours as small as 2mm to better detect, diagnosis and develop treatment for cancer patients.
What problem or opportunity did you identify and seek to address?
I’m an immigrant. I was born in Wales and came to Calgary in 1967. I went to the University of Calgary and then became a scientific entrepreneur. I’d always liked solving problems. When I finished university I got some incredible jobs that were very fortuitous for me. After working for a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin and working with technology from all over the world, at the ripe old age of 28 I decided to work for myself.
I thought at that time, “Why don’t I just try and make an ultrasound machine?” Knowing that certain methods of imaging gave much greater resolution than the current ultrasound machines, I started a company and I became an advisor to the University of California system. We would look at the inventions of different professors and say, “If you put this with this, that’s a technology, not just an invention.” That’s what I really liked doing.
I went on to medical imaging and developed my first full independent ultrasound, which made a beautiful picture. It was great, but it took 20 minutes to make a picture that was, at the time, the same quality as an MRI. It was a huge economic failure because we didn’t realize doctors wouldn’t wait 10 minutes for a picture; in their minds, ultrasounds needed to be live. I took this technology and I thought, “Who else could use really great pictures and doesn’t mind waiting a few minutes?” The answer was the oil and gas sector. I converted the technology and built a seismic imaging system.
It did very well. After I exited from that venture, I knew medicine was my primary driver. We were able to redesign the system and were fortunate enough to enter into clinical trials all over the world, including the US and Europe.
It was all about answering this question: “If I can see the difference between shaley sand and sandy shale through five miles of rock, surely I can find a tumour four inches away and differentiate it?”
Back in the world of seismic imaging, we’re now just going into trials of a new system that uses imaging for water conservation and greenhouse gas reduction in the fracking industry.
What has been the impact?
With the novel medical imaging technology, we were able to get that first IP. It was a big deal for us. When we sold the company, some of the technology was fortunately registered with a technology licensing company. We’ve now seen the super-resolution and other technologies show up in new ultrasound machines. Now you see thousands of papers on synthetic aperture and ultrasound imaging, when before there were none. It’s good when you see the technology you created go into new applications and further developed.
How has being in Alberta helped you find success?
Although Alberta doesn’t have a history of medical innovation on a large scale, because of the oil and gas industry, we had a lot of money available to us. There was recognition that fundamental science and innovation had to take place here because we were a one-horse town.
Our venture capital infrastructure here is dedicated, committed, and it does good things, but it’s just not big. Previously, if your technology wasn’t about oil and gas, there was no interest. Now, that’s not true anymore. It’s just nice to see Alberta’s support for fundamental science is sparking innovation and then letting the market take its place.
What are the plans for the future?
I have recently completed a sub surface imaging system that looks through rock from the bore hole. It has a range of 100 meters and looks for fractures in the rock. Leading Canadian energy companies are currently testing it. It will dramatically cut the use of water in the fracking sector and minimize induced seismicity in water disposal. This has resulted in three new patents and a licence with a major oil sands company.
I turned 65 this year, so it’s time to begin a new challenge. I’m going back to medicine to do something in regenerative medicine with imaging and ultrasound methods.
As I get older, I notice my muscle loss is higher. I want to quantify these problems and help with regenerative medicine, whether it be regeneration from injury, genetic disorders or just age. I think I have some things to contribute yet, so why not? I’ll likely never retire by my own free will. I will stay in Calgary and do the next medical project here.
As a note. I have started this project and will begin with not only evaluating the properties of muscles, but also imaging joints in 3d while in motion.
How does it feel to be an ASTech Finalist?
It’s very rewarding. It’s got to do with people and their life’s work and their stories. There are so many good people when you look at what they have invented and created, it’s remarkable. I think if you look over the years at the finalists, there’s an enormous amount of achievement there. To be put into that same group of people is personally really rewarding. At the end of the day I just get this grin from ear to ear.