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Rare birds: University of Alberta heritage chicken program preserves vintage breeds

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A barn at the University of Alberta Poultry Research Centre in south Edmonton is home to more than 16,000 healthy, clucking chickens.

But these fowl aren’t ordinary, these are heritage chickens.

The classic breeds include the 1957 Random Bread Broiler line and the Barred Plymouth Rock, a breed that dates back to 1910.

Frank Robinson, a professor of Agricultural Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Alberta, said commercial farming has made these breeds extremely rare, and some might be extinct without the program.

Robinson compared the poultry industry to car manufacturers that release a new model each year.

“Every year the same way a car company puts out a new car, a chicken company puts out a new model of chickens,” he said. “These 1957 and ’78 lines are significant because it’s like a 1957 car that has been maintained in perfect shape.”

But unlike like car companies, University of Alberta researchers have to consider the needs of live animals.

The Heritage Chicken program houses around 16,000 chickens from various rare breeds. (John Ulan/University of Alberta)

“If you want save old cars you put up a Quonset in Wetaskiwin and call it a car museum,” he said.  “But if you want to save old chickens you can’t just do that, you have to feed and maintain them and reproduce them every year.”

The Heritage Chicken Program raises ten different breeds of chickens, while commercial farms in North America will typically only raise one kind, purchased from one of the three major distributors: Avaiagen, Cobb and Hubbard.

“Whether you buy a chicken in Winnipeg, Saskatchewan or Arkansas, it is all the identical genetic model,” Robinson said.

The worst-case scenario concern, Robinson said, is that one year commercial chickens could develop a harmful genetic mutation through cross-breeding and die-off, forcing producers to start over with a new population.

“So with our heritage collection it’s like having a living museum of live biological material,” Robinson said.

Adopt-a-chicken

Preserving these rare birds comes at a cost.

What started as a small program in 1991 eventually outgrew its university research budget, and the sale of eggs wasn’t enough to cover additional expenses.

“[The chickens] cost a lot to feed and to house, there’s staff that collect their eggs three times a day and feed them and clean up the barn and maintain it,” said Dawn Hage, a Heritage Chicken Program coordinator with the U of A Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences.

In 2013 the Poultry Research Centre started an adopt-a-chicken program to help raise funds.

“We call adopt-a-chicken because [people] look through breeds and they choose a breed they like and pick a hen or a rooster and give it a name,” Hage said. 

People can adopt a chicken to receive fresh eggs from the Heritage Chicken Program at the University of Alberta. (John Ulon/University of Alberta)

Each person who adopts a chicken gets a certificate of adoption, but unlike traditional animal adoption, they don’t take their fowl friend home.

The chickens stay on campus and every two weeks people can pick up a batch of eggs from the chickens.  

The adopt-a-chicken has become a successful part of the Heritage Chicken project since it started five years ago.

She said at $157.50 for an annual subscription it’s a reasonably decent price, “but it’s really a thank you for keeping these genetic lines alive.”

The adopt-a-chicken program has also been popular — out of 500 chickens that went up for adoption at the beginning of November only five are still available.

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The ‘Maple Majestic’ wants to be Canada’s homegrown Tesla

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Look out Tesla, Canada has a homegrown electric sedan on the way. Well, that’s if AK International Motor Corporation can drum up enough investment to make its EV a reality. Dubbed the “Maple Majestic,” the vehicle is a battery-electric designed to “excel in extreme climate performance without adversely affecting the climate, as befits a vehicle from Canada,” according to its website.

What’s in a name? — The company says the maple leaf is a “symbol of Canada’s warmth and friendliness towards all cultures,” while “majestic” refers to the country’s “status as a Constitutional Monarchy.”

That patriotism carries over into Maple Majestic’s parent company’s lofty goals. AK Motor founder Arkadiusz Kaminski says he wants the company, which he founded in 2012, to become “Canada’s first multi-brand automotive OEM,” and that the “Maple Majestic is intended to be Canada’s flagship brand of automobiles on the world stage.”

Partnerships are key — “We acknowledge that the best chance for the Maple Majestic brand to succeed, lies in continuing to build the relationship with Canada’s parts suppliers and technological innovators, whether they be academic institutions, corporations, or individual inventors,” the company explains. “We are currently seeking partners in automotive engineering, parts manufacturing, automotive assembly, electric propulsion technology, battery technology, autonomous technology, and hybrid power generation technology.”

In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy a Maple Majestic any time soon… and don’t expect to pour over 0-60 mph times, power output, range, or other key stats, because those don’t currently exist. For now, all we have are pictures and a short video clip. But at least those are arresting.

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PE-backed Quorum Software to merge with Canadian energy tech firm

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Houston-based energy technology company Quorum Software will merge with a Canadian tech firm to bolster its presence in oil and gas services.

Quorum announced Feb. 15 it plans to merge with Calgary, Alberta-based Aucerna, a global provider of planning, execution and reserves software for the energy sector. The combined firm will operate under the Quorum Software brand.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software, will continue in his capacity as chief executive of the combined firm. Austin, former CEO of Austin-based marketing tech firm Bazaarvoice Inc., became CEO of Quorum in December 2018.

Aucerna co-founder and CEO Wayne Sim will be appointed to the Quorum Software board of directors. Both companies are backed by San Francisco- and Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

“Over the last 20 years, Quorum has become the leading innovator of software deployed by North American energy companies,” said Austin. “Today, Quorum is expanding the scope of our technology and expertise to all energy-producing regions of the globe. Customers everywhere will have access to a cloud technology ecosystem that connects decision-ready data from operations to the boardroom.”

In addition to the merger announcement, Quorum Software announced it had entered into an agreement with Finnish IT firm TietoEvry to purchase TietoEvry’s entire oil and gas business. The agreement, which includes hydrocarbon management, personnel and material logistics software and related services, is valued at 155 million euros, or $188 million, according to a statement from TietoEvry.

“Our three organizations complement each other — from the software that our great people design to the energy markets where we operate,” said Sim. “Our new company will be able to deliver value to our stakeholders, while accelerating the growth of our combined business and the energy industry’s software transformation.”

The combined company will serve over 1,800 energy companies in 55 countries, according to the announcement. With its headquarters in Houston, Quorum will continue to have a significant presence in Calgary and in Norway, the headquarters for TietoEvry’s oil and gas software business. Quorum will have other offices throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As of Sept. 30, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo had more than $73 billion in assets under management. In late December 2020, Thoma Bravo agreed to acquire Richardson, Texas-based tech firm RealPage in a roughly $10 billion acquisition.

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Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover

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KITCHENER — A piece of Kitchener technology has landed on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The rover settled on the planet’s surface on Thursday afternoon. It’s been travelling through space since it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in July.

“The whole idea of being on a device that we’re sending to another plant with the express mission of looking for traces of past life, it’s pretty mind boggling actually,” said Rafal Pawluczyk, chief technical officer for FiberTech Optica.

The Kitchener-based company made fibre optic cables for the rover’s SuperCam that will examine samples with a camera, laser and spectrometers.

“The cables that we built take the light from that multiplexer and deliver it to each spectrograph,” Pawluczyk said.

The cables connect a device on the rover to the SuperCam, which will be used to examine rock and soil samples, to spectrometers. They’ll relay information from one device to another.

The project started four years ago with a connection to Los Alamos National Lab, where the instruments connected to the cables were developed.

“We could actually demonstrate we can design something that will meet their really hard engineering requirements,” Pawluczyk said.

The Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover, with FiberTech Optica’s technology onboard, landed Thursday. Scientists believe it was once flooded with water and is the best bet for finding any evidence of life. FiberTech’s cables will help that in that search.

Ioannis Haranas, an astrophysicist and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the rover isn’t looking for “green men.”

“They’re looking for microbial, single-cell life, any type of fossils and stuff like that,” Haranas said. “That’s why they chose a special landing site. This could be very fertile land for that.”

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ralf Gellert, a physics professor at the University of Guelph.

Gellert helped with previous rover missions and said it’s the first time a Mars rover has landed without a piece of Guelph technology on it. While he’s not part of Perseverance’s mission, he said the possibilities are exciting.

“Every new landing site is a new piece of the puzzle that you can put together with the new results that we have from the other landing sites,” he said.

“It’s scientifically very interesting because, even though we don’t have an instrument on that rover, we can compare what the new rover Perseverance finds at this new landing site,” he said.

Now that Perseverance has landed on Mars, FiberTech is looking ahead to its next possible mission into space.

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