Sorry to disappoint if ‘Getting Out of the Lab’ has you expecting vacation recommendations for scientists!  Instead I’ve been thinking about how analytical technologies make it out of centralized laboratories.  We were promised many things on 1960’s TV, personally I’m still waiting for my flying car, hover-board and jet-pack but every year Spock’s “Tricorder” seems a step closer.   It’s often called measuring at the point-of-need and we ask “How do you successfully bring analysis to samples rather than samples to laboratories?”

Today, there are multiple technologies, deployed in significant volumes, as dedicated personal instruments or handheld devices: Raman, XRF, UV/Vis, near infrared and FTIR are the ones I am most familiar with.  The team at 908 Devices is working to liberate Mass Spectrometer capabilities from centralized labs. We believe passionately that people will do fantastic things when they have those capabilities right in their workspace or are able to carry them in a pocket onto the battlefield.

I’ve been fortunate to lead or work with a number of businesses that have successfully transitioned a number of these technologies – these days I’m quite the evangelist!  I’ve been considering, “What separates the winning approaches from the many, many efforts that never made it?”

Some examples:

Ahura Scientific was founded to make optical components for the telecom industry.  One burst market-bubble, a quick pivot by the founders and the same technology was deployed to make handheld Raman systems.  The technique of Raman Spectroscopy has been around since 1928 with constant development bringing greater sensitivity and flexibility in laboratory systems – by the mid-1990’s, most Raman systems weighed 200lb, were complex and expensive but were still increasing their analytical capability.  The complexity and fragility of their optical systems made them tough to run consistently and the very idea of moving one, let alone putting a battery operated version weighing 2lb in the pocket of a soldier was absurd. The first Ahura products shipped late in 2004. Seven years later there were more than 10,000 MilSpec-tested Raman systems literally ‘in the field.’  They were operating in deserts to identify explosives in IEDs, checking in-coming raw materials at the loading docks of Pharmaceutical plants and identifying illegal drugs on city streets around the world.

Why did this approach take off so dramatically?

In the Life Science sector, NanoDrop made simple, small and robust analyzers for DNA, RNA and protein concentration measurements.  When the first NanoDrop UV/Vis shipped in 2001, every life science research facility already had a UV/Vis spectrometer that was flexible, powerful and capable of doing those concentration measurements.  That legacy system was typically in a shared instrumentation lab often with a specialist to care for it and assist in running samples. By the end of the decade, press releases announced there were more than 30,000 NanoDrop systems shipped and ‘NanoDropping’ was literally the verb for analyzing your sample.  These NanoDrop systems overturned the conventional workflow. They were no longer located in the shared lab – they were in use as ‘personal analyzers’ on the workbenches of individual biologists.

What made the NanoDrop standout from the crowded, ‘mature’ UV/Vis market? 

 In scrap metal yards world-wide, you’ll likely see a battery-powered, handheld XRF analyzer sorting different waste for recycling.  In the past 15 years, more than 35,000 of these systems shipped under the Niton name alone. Battery powered and a few pounds in weight, they are a far cry from laboratory systems that can still be the size of a refrigerator.  In recycling plants, handheld near-infrared systems sorting discarded carpet can make a million measurements a year.

What insights made these processes possible?

I believe all of these breakthroughs shared some common approaches (and conversely most of the failed efforts I know of missed at least one of them).

  • Designs based on a deep understanding of the end-user needs
  • Purpose Built Systems – a focus on solving a specific problem well, rather than making a general purpose analyzer
  • A Quantum Change in size weight and power – a radically different technological approach that changes the game
  • Delivering Answers to Non-Expert Users – removing the need for instrumentation specialists to generate and interpret data
  • Ruggedness and Reliability built-in.

At 908 Devices we are applying these tenets to Mass Spectrometers.  Next time I’ll share some thoughts on how I’ve seen these breakthroughs applied in different fields and how we’ll use them in ultra-compact Mass Spec tools.