Please tell us about yourself
Sumitra Rajagopalans life as a scientist started out like a dream. She was a bright-eyed 18-year-old who left her home in India to study chemistry in St. Petersburg mere months after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Being there, an outsider at the epicentre of modern chemistry where Dmitri Mendeleev created the periodic table, no less was exciting and scary, foreign and beautiful, and Rajagopalan was inspired.
What did you study?
She has a B.Sc in Polymer Chemistry from the University of Saint Petersburg in Russia as well as graduate degrees in chemistry and biomaterials from the Universite de Montreal.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
In an ornate lecture hall, Professor Alexander Bilibin delivered a lecture that sparked her interest in the science that would define her livelihood. He spoke of the promise of smart materials—life-like objects that change form in reaction to external triggers. “I went to him right after and said, in my broken Russian, ‘I really, really want to work for you,’” says Rajagopalan. “I knew this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
So far, she hasn’t wavered. As the founder and CEO of Montreal-based biomedical devices company Bioastra Technologies, she’s at the bleeding edge of developing and commercializing practical uses for smart materials—turning Professor Bilibin’s vision into reality. Since launching Bioastra in 2008, she’s grown her business from a one-woman operation to a team of 17 whiz-bang inventor-types; together, they’ve increased sales by 906% in the last five years, landing the business at No. 82 on the 2017 PROFIT 500 ranking of Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies. In a sector known for long timelines and fervent secrecy, Bioastra has embraced a research and development orthodoxy that allows it to quickly market its inventions.
Rajagopalan speaks with both pride and humility about her accidental path to entrepreneurship. Like many scientists, she initially saw herself working in academia. But after moving to Canada, completing a master’s degree in polymer chemistry at the University of Montreal and starting a PhD program—which allowed her to work on a “dream project” creating a biological muscle from smart materials—Rajagopalan grew restless. She wanted to see her work make an impact with real-world applications, not enshrined in niche publications, so she quit. “I was in pure survival mode after that,” she says. “I had to find work.”
How does your work benefit the community?
Thats when she decided to sell a prototype she developed after a trip home to India, a sponge-like smart fabric inspired by materials used in the Russian space program that helps alleviate heat stress in super-hot climates. Rajagopalan figured someone would buy it and, after cold-calling countless garment companies, someone did. She took the $10,000 cheque as a sign to keep going, and spent the the next two years toiling by herself in a shared work space getting by, but making no major gains.
The company has developed an injectable liquid that turns solid when it enters the body to aid in (among other things) drug delivery; it also invented a polymer-based artificial muscle similar to Rajagopalan’s abandoned PhD project used in compression wear to counter pain. These two technologies alone hold myriad application possibilities, says Rajagopalan, and while they were developed for others, Bioastra owns the intellectual property.
It takes many tons of sand and hundreds of truck trips to support hydraulic fracturing operations. Sand mixed with water is used to prop open the tiny fractures and allow oil and gas to flow freely. Getting the material to the fracking site has a tremendous impact on nearby communities and leaves a giant environmental footprint. GE (Fairfield, CT) and energy company Statoil (Stavanger, Norway) recently launched an open innovation challenge to find ways to reduce the use of sand in onshore operations, and they have now announced five winners. One of them is Bioastra (Montreal), which has developed a platform of physiologically responsive biopolymers used in medical and other applications. The materials, which can change from liquid to solid in the body in response to temperature and other stimuli, apparently can also work wonders for fracking.
Bioastra developed composite particles that swell up to 10 times their initial size in liquid, notes a news release distributed by challenge organizers. The beads are lightweight, extremely strong and much smaller in size than other proppants industry jargon for the materials used to “prop open” the fractures. Similar to a material initially developed for artificial cartilage and occlusion agents for surgery, the particles can fit into small fissures and conform to small cracks in the formation. They are also more buoyant than sand, facilitating better suspension in fluid.
“We are working on things such as injectable implants that respond to external stimuli like temperature, and change from liquid to solid in the body,” Bioastra founder and CEO Sumitra Rajagopalan told Product Design & Development. But to be honest, the material doesn’t care whether you put it inside the body or inside an oil well.”