Almost exactly a year ago, Haakensen started Contango Strategies Ltd., a Saskatoon-based company that offers contract microbiology research, development and value-added services for the natural resources and energy sectors.
Haakensen has successfully combined her science background and business acumen to build a successful company, working with clients both large and small. "I get excited about the science, but now I'm always thinking of its application. How can this be used? What client will this serve?"
Contango may not be the only player in the bioconversion and bioremediation field, but larger industrial companies tend to add chemicals, genetically modified organisms or non-native microbes to the process. "We don't add non-natural or non-native microbes; we don't' genetically modify anything." Haakenson points out. "There are more naturally occurring microbes in a handful of dirt than there are humans on earth. What we do is look at what's there and ask what they do. Then we ask how we can stimulate it to speed it up. We are using natural processes, things the environment does all the time."
Haakensen compares the process to bacteria changing milk into yogurt or yeast changing barley to beer, only applied to a different industry. "For example, biodiesel waste is not valuable and hard to get rid of. But there are naturally existing microbes that can be used to turn it into something more valuable, like âgreen' plastics or non-toxic anti-freeze."
When your company profile uses words like bioinformatics and biogeochemistry, it can be hard getting publicity and recognition. "This award gives me and the company additional profile and credibility. When you are young with a young business it's good to have something extra behind you."
Haakensen keeps close ties to the University of Saskatchewan, as an adjunct professor for the School of Environment and Sustainability, serving on graduate student advisory committees for the Departments of Food and Bioproduct Sciences and Computer Science, guest lecturing for the College of Agriculture and Bioresources and the Edwards School of Business, and hiring graduate student interns that need industry experience in their final year of a project.
As if all of that does not keep the young entrepreneur busy enough, expansion is already a reality for Haakensen and Contango. The company's soon to be completed renovation will not only add much needed laboratory space, they will add gene sequencing to the list of services they provide.