To detect explosives and disease, look for the invisible light

11.16.05

Nov 16, 2005 –
Daylight Solutions, a start-up company not even a year old, is addressing some of the most urgent and vexing problems of the 21st century —- explosives hidden by terrorists and diseases —- with beams of invisible light.

The company is developing a portable sensor that uses an infrared laser to detect airborne molecules, including those from hidden explosives, dangerous gases and disease-causing microbes. The laser can be tuned while in use to quickly detect many different molecules at once, said Paul Larson, president and chief executive of the Poway-based company. I

f the laboratory prototype works in the field, it could speed up security inspections and noninvasively diagnose diseases such as cancer before they cause symptoms. Daylight Solutions’ prototype is promising enough that it recently received a federal grant of $75,000 to bring it along, with the potential of much more to come.

“You could point this 100 yards away at a suicide bomber and detect the explosives wrapped around him,” Larson said.

The grant came from the San Diego-based Center for Commercialization of Advanced Technology, or CCAT San Diego. Formed in 1999, the agency is funded by the Department of Defense to encourage development of technologies that have both security and commercial applications. Its partners include San Diego State University, UC San Diego, the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center (SpaWar) and Lockheed Martin Orincon Technologies Inc.

Fertile climate

San Diego County has plenty of the talent the agency is looking for, said Sandy Ehrlich, director of San Diego State’s Entrepreneurial Management Center, which is part of the CCAT consortium. The region’s academic, business and governmental agencies have a long record of cooperating with one another, Ehrlich said.

“It’s more difficult to set this model down in other regions where there is less collaboration,” Ehrlich said.

San Diego County’s collaborative model is rooted in its history. The county has been a major center of defense spending and weapons development for decades. It also has a large base of high-tech and biotechnology companies, and is also a world-famous center of academic research. That makes a promising foundation for discovering new technologies that can serve civilian and government defense and security needs.

Coincidentally, Ehrlich said, Larson is an alumni of the entrepreneurial program in SDSU’s Executive MBA program. He took the program several years ago to add business savvy to his technical knowledge, Ehrlich said.

“Paul’s always been somewhat of a maverick,” Ehrlich said. “He sees opportunities for innovative applications of technology and bringing his technical skills to bear. He’s been in a number of entrepreneurial situations.”

Given this kind of close-knit community, it’s not surprising that San Diego-area companies such as Daylight Solutions have received most of the CCAT grants. But the program has now gone national, spokeswoman Suzanne Finch said. The program also has a San Bernardino location, helping it cover Southern California, where the “vast majority” of grant applications still come from, Finch said.

Small award, big benefit

Since it began awarding commercialization grants in 2001, CCAT has made 222 awards, worth a total of $17 million. That money is relatively small per company, considering that venture capitalists often invest far more than $17 million in just one company.

But Ehrlich said that even relatively small grants, given at the right time, can be vital to turning an idea from a hobby shop concept to one with demonstrated value.

“We provide capital at a critical point in commercialization, capital that’s often difficult to get,” Ehrlich said. “Entrepreneurs may begin with ‘friends and family’ money or angel capital (small grants from individual investors), and find a gap when they look for additional funds to commercialize,” he said. “It’s called ‘the valley of death.’ ”

So far, CCAT has assembled a portfolio of 75 technologies that are ready for commercialization. A list is available at http://www.ccatsandiego.org/index.shtml.

In October, CCAT San Diego awarded four grants, one to Daylight Solutions. Another laserrelated grant went to William Tong, a chemistry and biochemistry professor at San Diego State. A third grant went to San Francisco-based Acceleron Technologies for location technology, and the fourth to Amadar LLC of Hoboken, N.J., for radio-frequency detection technology.

Those who are developing technologies that might meet the agency’s criteria can get more information at its Web site, at www.ccatsandiego.org, Finch said.

“What we’re looking for are companies that look like they have some good technology and have a prototype ready to go,” Finch said.

The Department of Homeland Security starts the process by soliciting applications for specific technologies or applications. Then CCAT examines the applications, often numbering 200 or more at a time, Finch said. Then CCAT, with help from its partners, winnows the list to about 15 to 20 applications that are chosen for a panel presentation.

Promising technologies may be further refined with the help of San Diego State’s Entrepreneurial Management Center and Springboard, a program of Connect, a local entrepreneurial technology organization formerly known as UCSD Connect. These groups help develop a business plan for commercialization.

Tuning in In

Daylight Solution’s case, the potential for remotely detecting explosives, here and abroad, grabbed CCAT’s attention, said Tom Sheffer, program director.

“Undetected explosives is a key factor in casualties in Iraq,” Sheffer said. “There is a serious need to detect those IEDs.” On the commercial side, Larson said the medical applications of its laser technology interested CCAT.

The story starts with “biomarkers,” which are molecules produced when people are sick. These biomarkers are often specific to individual diseases, and many are expelled through body waste or into the air through the breath or from the skin.

The airborne biomarkers make excellent targets for noninvasive tests, Larson said. (And from the standpoint of patients squeamish about the pains of being poked, prodded or probed with radiation, having one’s breath analyzed is much less stressful.) ”

Johns Hopkins has identified 500 of these biomarkers, and they’ve mapped them to certain diseases,” Larson said. “Acetone is linked to diabetes. Ammonia can indicate kidney failure.”

The result, if it works, would resemble the medical tricorder of “Star Trek” fame, a device able to diagnose ailments just by waving it in front of the patient.

Infrared lasers come into play, because many airborne biomarkers and explosive molecules happen to resonate in various frequencies of the midinfrared spectrum. When they absorb laser light of the right frequencies, these molecules will re-emit the energy in a characteristic signature, which can be detected. As the laser is tuned like a tuning fork, it homes in on the precise molecules being searched for.

While this works in the laboratory, taking such tunable lasers where they are needed —- in security checkpoints, in hospitals and laboratories —- isn’t feasible now, Larson said.

“The lasers require huge and expensive cryogenic cooling equipment and kilowatts of power,” Larson said, making them impractical for curbside checks of luggage.

Daylight Solutions has developed a technology for making low-power tunable lasers, Larson said. With low-power consumption, the lasers can be made smaller and easier to carry.

The company’s strategy is to make these lasers as a “platform technology” that serve as components of other specialized devices. That way, the same devices can be used in multiple applications, cutting down the cost of production. Daylight Solutions would sell the lasers to other companies, which would make and sell the various detection devices.

The first units should be delivered to customers by the end of 2006, Larson said.

Contact staff writer Bradley J. Fikes at (760) 739-6641 or bfikes@nctimes.com.


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