10 to Watch 2017: TrichAnalytics

“I’m fascinated by lasers, and the more I learned, the more questions I had. I could only answer the questions by becoming a university professor or starting a company.”

Photograph by Jeffrey Bosdet.

At age six, Jennie Christensen was diagnosed with trichotillomania, the compulsion to pull out one’s hair.

“It was very challenging to grow up with it. I hated it. I hated myself,” says Christensen, who earned her PhD in toxicology at UVic. “But I’ve turned an obsession into a research business. I took a flaw and turned it into one of my greatest strengths.”

Last year she launched TrichAnalytics Inc., a game-changing business that analyzes growing biological tissues such as hair, nails or feathers for metal and elemental contaminants to determine changes in health.

“I’ve always had a passion for screening, detective work and discovering why,” she says.

Before TrichAnalytics, she worked with four other scientists to publish a provocative paper in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, which challenged the idea that explorers on the Franklin Expedition (1845-1848) died of lead poisoning. Using highly sophisticated technology, including laser ablation (her specialty), the team analyzed a thumbnail from crew member John Hartnell. They found that instead of dying of lead poisoning from canned food, he had been chronically zinc-deficient, which possibly led to weakened immunity and, ultimately, tuberculosis and death. The results changed history.

Christensen now wants to impact the future, investigating large, complex environmental health issues, from animals exposed to mercury to children exposed to lead, and showing the impact in the hopes of effecting change.

Q&A with Dr. Jennie Christensen of Trichanalytics

What was the best business advice you ever received?

This comes from a contact from the United Nations: “You’ve got the science nailed. Now you need to understand the market and determine why they want to use your resource.”

What was the scariest part of starting?

I had an amazing job with Stantec, well-paying, well-respected, great colleagues, a great future. The scariest part was taking a step away from that into the great unknown…

What are you most proud of?

Helping to solve the mystery of the Franklin Expedition. That is the pinnacle of my career. And if I look back to when I was a kid, what I saw for myself, I feel like I’ve had a very happy, successful, fulfilling life. I’ve got a great family, business, education. Despite my challenges in life, I’ve persevered.

What advice would you give someone just starting out?

Meet and talk to as many people as you can. People want to be helpful and you need help.

Trichanalytics Business Profile

Type of business: The only commercial laboratory in Canada to use laser ablation for biological tissues to answer questions in regard to metal exposure, nutrition and health.

Year founded: 2016

Owner/principal: Dr. Jennie Christensen

Employees/contractors: 2

What sets you apart? “I’m probably the only one in the world who’s taken an obsession with hair to research how hair can incorporate contaminants.”

This article is from the April/May 2017 issue of Douglas.