Contango Strategies connects science with industry

Posted on March 01, 2012

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by Enterprise Saskatchewan

Microbiology has moved beyond the lab and into the field. Thanks to people like Monique Haakensen, President of Contango Strategies in Innovation Place in Saskatoon, the resource extraction sector is increasingly harnessing the power of microbes and biological processes to decrease waste or convert it into something more valuable, optimize production systems, reduce the environmental impact of their operations, and achieve regulatory compliance more quickly and economically. “Microbes—from algae and bacteria to fungi and yeasts—are the most diverse and numerous organisms on earth,” Haakensen says. “They can perform an astonishing array of feats, from eating and degrading hydrocarbons, speeding or slowing the oxidation process, or turning contaminants such as arsenic, selenium or sulphur into less harmful, more easily captured compounds.” Haakensen fell into the sciences almost by accident. “I took one elective in microbiology and I was hooked.” She completed her PhD in 2009, worked as a research associate examining applications of microbiology for the mining industry, and further recognized the growing need to transition research into application while she worked as a government scientist. “The mining, biofuels and petroleum industries are progressing so quickly in Saskatchewan, we need to take what we’ve learned about microbes in the lab and to use this knowledge in the field, and we need to be able to respond to the environmental aspects associated with those industries in a very timely manner.” Passionate about the opportunity to make a difference, Haakensen started Contango Strategies early in 2011 to provide a variety of services for the oil and gas sector, the biodiesel industry, and other resource extraction industries. This includes lab-based research and development, technology review and assessment, preparation and review of project proposals and technical proposals, process streamlining, and much more. What distinguishes Contango Strategies from other players in the burgeoning environmental and industrial remediation marketplace, however, is Haakensen’s commitment to integrating innovative environmental practices with sound business processes. “The scientific solutions we come up with have to make financial and business sense. When we consider solutions to specific problems, we need to make certain these are actually feasible to implement. Science may look beautiful in the lab, but it must also work on-site.” That’s where Contango’s Chief Financial Officer and Haakensen’s husband comes into the picture; Kevin Haakensen, a CFA charter holder with over a dozen years of experience, applies his considerable business and financial acumen to develop feasibility studies, technology assessments, and cost/benefit and probability risk analyses of solutions Contango either examines or proposes. Contango also undertakes related market research on behalf of clients. It’s this approach to integrating good environmental practices with good businesses practices that is garnering the positive attention that Contango is receiving. Haakensen was recently named one of Canada’s Future Entrepreneurial Leaders (FuEL) by Profit Magazine for her approach. Contango Strategies is also performing all of the lab work and providing scientific oversight on the MAVEN project (Microbial Assessment for Value-Added, Environmental and Natural Resources) that includes Cameco Corporation and project lead Genome Prairie, a not-for-profit bioscience and bioethics research body that works closely with government, industry and academia—in this case, the University of Saskatchewan; Dr. Tony Kusalik is providing oversight and direction on the software development component. MAVEN recently received almost $1.5 million from Enterprise Saskatchewan and Western Economic Diversification Canada for software development. Although this project will focus on sediments from Cameco’s Key Lake mining operations with a view to understanding how microbes present in the sediments might be put to practical use to reduce the environmental impact, as well as the time and compliance costs of mine site remediation, the knowledge gained could have important applications for other mining and milling operations in the country. Contango’s future looks good and Haakensen recently hired a number of bright Masters and PhD candidates on internships for project-based work, and hopes to recruit more. “We give them the experience they need, and they give us access to their ideas. I now have people with knowledge in toxicology, microbiology, agricultural bioresearch, and computer sciences and access to others by virtue of the relationships I’ve been able to build here.” Contango is also expanding its lab space to add a genetics sequencer suite—the first of its kind in western Canada that will be used for environmental work. “When I started Contango Strategies, I had a business plan, but it has progressed much more rapidly than I could have imagined,” says Haakensen. “There is a huge marketplace out there, and Saskatchewan is proving to be a great place to be located. Not only are we well-placed in terms of the resource sector, but people here want to see you succeed. They want to help you out. Saskatchewan has been relatively untouched in an otherwise shaky global economy. People are doing something different here, and it is working. Now we need to start telling people what’s going on to encourage more people to move here to work. Come to Saskatchewan if you want to succeed.”   To learn more about Contango Strategies and how it works with industry to safeguard the environment, visit http://www.contangostrategies.com/.  

Article and photograph courtesy of Enterprise Saskatchewan. To read more about business in Saskatchewan, check out the latest issue of Enterprise Now! at www.enterprisesaskatchewan.ca/spring2012.