Durham Region is home to some of the brightest inventions in the world. But if you don’t know about Wayne and Nina Conrad’s contribution to Canada’s innovative community, take heart. The Omachron group of companies’ one-of-a-kind inventions – and Wayne and Nina’s plans to help save the environment with their brilliant innovations – will no doubt make them household names in the very near future.
It’s kind of cliché to say, but it all starts with an idea. And if you’ve met Wayne Conrad, you’ll agree that the idea was probably his in the first place.
For an inventor who holds nearly 600 patents (Thomas Edison, arguably the greatest American inventor, held 1,093) and the founder of the Omachron family of companies (a research and development group that combines “imagination, advanced research, hard work and a genuine concern for the future”), Conrad isn’t the intimidating man you may think of when you conjure up a chief scientist who spends his days developing brilliant sustainable technologies. In fact, he’s actually a warm, patient and inviting guy with a friendly smile — a host who displays aviation collectibles in his main-floor English-style pub, keeps candies on his boardroom table and is quick to offer a tour of the grounds of his stone mansion (which not only houses his family, but his business headquarters and laboratories).
Conrad was raised in Durham Region; he now lives and works in the small village of Hampton. When he was 13, he won the 1976 Canada-Wide Science Fair (he came up with the design for a solar-powered car). That’s when he met Arthur Moore, professor emeritus at the University of Michigan, and the world’s leading authority in electrostatics, electromagnetics and spheromagnetics. As an ingenious mentor, Moore introduced the teenager to leaders in the science world — he met incredible visionaries, from physicists to cyberneticians. At 15, Conrad started his research, development and manufacturing company. “A few years later, he was studying at the University of Toronto and running his company when his father needed a valve replacement,” says Nina Conrad, Omachron’s product development manager and Wayne’s wife of 17 years. “Wayne decided to continue the research and his business and postponed finishing his degree. For the next 30 years, his parents worried about him never finishing university. In their later years, they stopped worrying.”
In the 40 years since he started the business, Conrad has developed a number of projects, many of which are becoming a commercial reality. Omachron touches on pretty much every way sustainable technologies can better the environment, including metal, ceramic, plastic and glass manufacturing processes, not to mention efficient ways to heat, cool, light and insulate the home. “This work changes the way we think about plastics, glass manufacturing, recycling methods. We can do so much more with less. We’re trying to solve problems here for all aspects of living, and if it seems grandiose, that’s because it is,” he says excitedly, standing at the screen in his boardroom. Conrad’s passion is infectious. When the tour of the home and facility lands outside one of the workshops, he radiates while showing off skids of thousands of pieces of recycled consumer waste. “There’s so much we can do with all of this. And we can do it right here.”
One incredible invention currently in the works is a new light bulb. (Yes, a new light bulb; the original, of course, was invented by Edison.) This one uses a power supply that lasts for many years and is used with a high-efficiency LED mounted on a removable card. “These use half the electricity of regular LED light bulbs and they can last for decades. Instead of light bulbs being disposable, we’re making them repairable,” he says, demonstrating how the removable “LightCard” works. “The card is removed for recycling and replaced when the LED light burns out,” Nina adds. “Unlike other bulbs, where the entire assembly is thrown away, the lens, body, heat sink and socket are all kept and the part that failed is exchanged.”
This concept of recycling is a driving force for Omachron. Another of Conrad’s inventive and inspired ideas is the concept of recycling energy and materials. For example, says Nina, “steel can be reclaimed to make products such as rebar for construction. In the melting and cooling of the steel, the heat energy from the cooling of the steel becomes the energy to melt and recycle aluminum. Similarly, in the cooling of the aluminum, the energy to melt and recycle plastic is extracted. The energy recovered from the cooling of the plastic can run new types of air conditioners. This simple yet thoughtful process reduces the energy and pollution footprint associated with recycling by 75 percent or more.” Among other inventions, Conrad has developed a low-cost energy storage system that allows air conditioners, stoves, hot water heaters and other appliances to take energy from the electrical grid at off-peak times and store them to use during peak times. His innovations using solar power (like the ultra-low-cost solar-powered air conditioner) are also unrivalled. “They’re very different and do not use rare earth or toxic metals or materials during their manufacture or in their structure,” Nina says. He’s even coming up with ways to grow food. Pointing to the bowl of strawberries on the table, he says, “We can grow berries with fewer chemicals, less labour and get eight times the yield per unit area.”
Even if you have trouble wrapping your head around his inventions, his approach is obvious — it’s clear his innovations have to be easy to manufacture and affordable to own and operate. “He’s very passionate about empowering small and mid-sized businesses. He puts his money where his mouth is,” Nina says. “For instance, his plastic extrusion and injection molding equipment can be operated in a small space, takes very little energy to run and costs very little to own. Because the equipment has lower capital costs than competitors, the cost of the final product this equipment produces is also cheaper, and it allows small-quantity production projects to be comparative in the marketplace and enables many products to be made locally.”
While his work takes up much of Conrad’s time and headspace, he’s a family man who enjoys being with his six kids (ages 10 to 33; not all of them live in Canada, but he speaks of each one fondly), and he’s apparently a master at the grill and “mixes a mean cocktail.” (Nina says he has hundreds of cocktails and mocktails in his repertoire.) Conrad also gives back to the community he grew up and lives in, and not just in the way he’s creating jobs and enabling local entrepreneurs. He is a champion of creating value in the community using local resources. “We love Durham Region for its diversity of shopping, dining, service clubs and events, such as the Rotary Ribfest. There’s a strong infrastructure of government support for science, technology and business, and has the brightest, most energetic staff who can be recruited,” says Nina. When you speak to Conrad you can see his pride in maintaining his roots in the area and his desire to make the world a better place. “It’s about keeping it local and letting my imagination go.”