In this interview, John Kenneweg, Vice President and General Manager for 908 Devices’ Safety & Security division, discusses the changing threat landscape, how M908 expands the first responder toolkit and what’s ahead for the Company’s Safety & Security portfolio.
Q: What is driving the need for more diverse and innovative technologies in the field?
A: This need is being driven by the increased risk, and varying degrees, of CBRNE threats that are present today. As we’ve all seen and experienced, the threat landscape has shifted in recent years, so we’re being tasked to find ways and solutions that help us evolve and adapt. For example, there has been a rapid uptick in what the industry refers to as “kitchen menace,” where individuals combine supplies commonly available at hardware stores to create weapons of mass destruction. In addition to chemical weapons, the use of IEDs is on the rise, presenting a clear need for better explosives detection capabilities. Furthermore, our customs and border patrol officers are battling more dangerous and covert drug threats than ever before, with powerful and deadly drugs like fentanyl being cut with pills manufactured to look like other less potent pain relievers, such as OxyContin, Vicodin, Percocet, and Xanax.
While law enforcement and emergency response organizations are doing their best to maintain a pace that is one step ahead of these clandestine dangers, the lack of technology required for specific hazard detection and identification has put them at a disadvantage.
Q: Are there any recent incidents that demonstrate this epidemic?
A: The unfortunate reality is that we rarely go a day without a safety and security threat. In some cases, first responders are able to preempt the danger, but far too often they lose this fight. The latest high profile example involves the nerve agent used to kill Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Nerve agents are one of the most toxic and fast-acting substances in chemical warfare. What’s more, they can be held in binary form for storage and detection avoidance, making tools that can identify the source compounds increasingly important. The one used in this case, VX, is most dangerous when inhaled and, despite its lethality, is not particularly difficult to make.
The growing threat of drug abuse is another area of concern. Synthetic opioids, like fentanyl, are a hazard to drug users and law enforcement officers alike. Fentanyl is very powerful, so less is required in order to achieve the desired effect but too much can be deadly. Current technologies are struggling to detect drugs like this at purity levels of less than 2-3 percent. In addition to the threat to users, law enforcement officials are putting their lives at risk from exposure, which at those levels can cause death through skin contact. Alarmingly, fentanyl and its analogs are many times more toxic than the suspected chemical warfare agent used in the recent attack on Kim Jong Nam. This further intensifies the need to arm our customs and border officers with more sensitive and selective tools that can identify and remove these drugs from circulation before they threaten our communities.
Q: How has the first responder community reacted to this new threat landscape?
A: Nerve agent attacks, drug smuggling and other devastations, such as the 2016 Brussels bombings, the 2015 Paris attacks and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings have brought the many “unknowns” surrounding these forms of warfare to the forefront. This put out a call to action to companies like 908 Devices, which has the ability to create innovative tools that can be used in these situations, and to the responder community to start incorporating these tools into their toolkits.
Q: 908 Devices first introduced its flagship product, M908™, in 2014. How does this product fit into the changing threat landscape?
A: M908 was purpose-built to fill technology gaps and meet the unmet needs of the first response mission. Powered by our patented HPMS™ technology, M908 brings increased sensitivity and selectivity directly into the hot zone via a robust, handheld form factor. Thus, adding the ability to detect and identify threat materials that were previously undetectable with legacy technologies. Additionally, the ability to see threat targets at trace or near-trace levels and in the presence of interferents allows M908 to thrive in the complicated, real-world environments that our responders regularly face.
Q: How has M908 been received by the first responder community?
A: We’ve seen great success in bringing M908 to the market. It’s a first-of-its-kind technology that has changed the game for many civilian, federal, and military responders who needed an easy-to-use, intuitive device to bring speed and accuracy to time-sensitive situations.
An example of this is the National Capital Region’s Hazardous Materials Committee, which purchased nine M908 devices last year to support their response missions. They not only recognized that the threat landscape was changing, but also identified that their older, technologically-obsolete mass and infrared spectrometers were not selective or sensitive enough to prepare them for future incidents. Another example of a community taking action in response to this dramatic change can be found in the State of Massachusetts. The Boston Marathon bombings were a catalyst for the State of Massachusetts’ Hazardous Materials Emergency Response Division altering their response strategy and purchasing a total of 11 M908 devices in 2015. With this purchase, the devices are now being used for routine response and large-scale events throughout the state, such as Fourth of July celebrations, Patriot’s Day events and the last two Boston Marathons, arming response teams with enhanced chemical threat detection capabilities.
Q: Unlike other lab-based systems that have been re-engineered into portable form factors, such as Raman, miniaturized mass spec has not experienced the same rush to market. Do you think there are more mini mass spec devices to come from others?
A: While M908 is the only HPMS-powered device currently on the market for safety & security professionals, there are a lot of companies who are also looking at miniaturized mass spec, and have been for a long time. I would say that 908 Devices is definitely leading the pack and will continue to for the foreseeable future. M908 is widely used by civilian and military organizations alike with many organizations already buying into our second-generation product. There is a strong appetite for more analytical power in the field, and people are aware of the benefits MS brings to the first response mission, and thus recognize the important role it plays in future fights.
Q: What’s ahead for 908 Devices?
A: M908 is just the beginning. In the three years since launching our flagship device, we’ve solidified our position as a leader in the global chemical threat detection market, with our technology being used by local, state and federal organizations across 18 different countries. During this time, we’ve helped first responders keep pace with threats and they, in turn, have helped us hone in on what they need most. This information has greatly informed our R&D efforts, which have been ongoing since the launch of M908 back in 2014. With the help of our partners and customers, we’ve continued to stay on the pulse of the industry and are gearing up to bring new, next-generation technology to market designed to deliver greater sensitivity and address a broader range of applications – all while staying true to the portable, rugged, intuitive, and purpose-built form factor our customers have come to rely on.
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