Canadian Manufacturing

U.S. biotech firm pitches microbe-hunting machine to oilsands execs

Same technology used to detect harmful bacteria like E. Coli in meat could be big business in oilpatch



CALGARY—A slab of beef and an oil well wouldn’t appear to have much in common, but American biotech firm Vivione Biosciences Inc. says the same technology used to detect harmful bacteria like E. Coli in meat could be big business in the oilpatch.

Vivione believes there’s latent demand for the technology in the oil and gas industry, where tiny critters can cause big headaches.

The most common culprits are sulphur- or sulphate-reducing bacteria, which are known to eat away at metal pipes and even generate toxic hydrogen sulphide gas.

“If we can identify bacteria in a piece of beef, honestly it’s the same type of thing in oil and gas,” CEO Kevin Kuykendall said in an interview.

Vivione began developing the Rapid-B system about eight years ago in concert with the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), with the aim of more quickly quantifying and identifying microbes in food.

Vivione is also working on a clinical application for Rapid-B, helping doctors spend less time figuring out what infection a patient has and which antibiotic would work best to fight it.

The technology itself is unremarkable to look at: Slightly larger than a typical PC tower, with a nozzle where a disc drive would be.

Samples are sucked up into the machine, where lasers hone in on the microbes.

A process that would have otherwise taken days can now take as little as 15 minutes.

Kuykendall, who played professional baseball before filling top jobs in industries ranging from telecommunications to ethanol, joined Vivione two years ago.

The sales and marketing functions at Vivione are based out of Dallas, while the technological aspects are handled out of the Little Rock, Ark., area, near the FDA’s National Center for Toxicological Research.

Vivione’s less than year-old oil and gas division, Petro Chemical Bio-Diagnostics, has a partnership with the Institute for Environmental Health Inc., a U.S. laboratory and consulting firm.

In April of 2013, Vivione raised $6 million and went public on the junior TSX Venture Exchange.

Last week, Kuykendall and his team pitched Rapid-B to oilpatch players in Calgary.

It doesn’t have a Canadian office yet, but expects to have one set up in the coming months.

So far, two oilfield service firms and one petroleum producer—Kuykendall declined to name names—have signed letters of intent.

It’s expected some bacteria will be present when energy firms draw water out of a pond to use in hydraulic fracturing, a process that involves injecting water, sand and chemicals into a well at high pressure in order to break the rock.

Much of that bacteria is harmless, but today there’s no easy or fast way to figure out whether more worrisome bugs are lurking.

“This little bug is going to cost them millions of dollars in not only lost production, but they’re going to have to replace equipment, pipes,” said Kuykendall. “The risk of having to shut your well in to fix something is a major risk.”

If an oil and gas producer has a bacteria problem, it will send large amounts of biocides downhole and hope for the best.

“These caustic chemicals are going down trying to kill everything. Well, if you don’t know what you’re trying to kill, it’s a little hard to get anything that’s truly efficacious,” said Kuykendall.

The industry collectively spends hundreds of millions of dollars per year on those poisons, said Julia Foght, a petroleum microbiologist at the University of Alberta.

In addition to being pricey, another drawback of biocides is that bacteria can become resistant to them, as has been the case with many antibiotics.

“So they have to keep switching the formulation of the biocides that they put down,” she said. “It’s a moving target.”

Foght said she sees how a rapid-detection platform like Rapid-B—provided it gives enough detailed information and that chemicals already in the water don’t muddy results—could be “an advance” for the industry.

“Those sulphate reducers are a big bugaboo for oil and gas, no question, and a lot of the techniques that are out there are inadequate or slow or both,” she said.

Vivione’s oilpatch services include a “well characterization test” to give a breakdown of what species of bacteria are present.

A “biocide efficacy test” will give customers a sense of whether what they’re using is working.

And a “total bacteria count” tracks the quantity of microbes in a given sample.

A Rapid-B unit retails for about $125,000, but they can also be leased for as little as $4,000 a month.

During the next two years or so, Vivione expects oil and gas to comprise as much as 80 per cent of its revenues.

But that proportion is expected to drop once its clinical application—which must go through a rigorous regulatory process—gets off the ground.

Shawn Ramsaroop, Vivione’s instrumentation lead, says it’s easy for the Rapid-B unit, which weighs about 27 kilograms, to be used in the field.

“This is pretty rugged,” he said. “You can put this on a truck, take it well to well and run the samples.”

Unlike some other medical equipment, the slightest jostle of the Rapid-B machine won’t throw its instrumentation out of whack.

And it’s not too difficult to learn how to use it, said Ramsaroop, holding a small jar of amber-tinged well water that’s about to be tested.

“I’ve trained people without expertise on this thing and they can handle it very well,” he said.

Before joining Vivione, Ramsaroop spent six years in the U.S. Air Force (USAF) working on satellite surveillance and missile detection.

“In the air force, I was looking at dots on the screen that were large objects in space. Now I’m looking at dots on a screen that are small particles,” he said. “Same principle, really: You’re looking for a needle in a haystack.”

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