Thursday April 27, 2017 0 comments
FORT COLLINS -- Fort Collins startup Access Sensor Technologies (AST) is working to make diagnostic testing of water, air and food as easy as using a home pregnancy test.
Environmental testing for foodborne pathogens, heavy metals, mold and atmospheric contaminants is no cakewalk. Collection and analysis of samples require trained technicians; there can be a time lag of several weeks; and costs can run hundreds or thousands of dollars a day.
Located in the CSU Powerhouse Energy Campus in downtown Fort Collins, AST has developed highly-portable technologies that don’t require technical expertise. One of these products is the Ultrasonic Personal Aerosol Sampler (UPAS), a handheld device that can measure harmful contaminates such as soot, dust and mold.
Another is the mPAD, or microfluidic Paper Analytical Device, which detects common foodborne pathogens. Although conceived and designed for household use, several steps remain before each becomes commercially available.
“We’re essentially fabricating engineered pieces of paper that will tell you something within minutes about you or your environment,” notes AST co-founder John Volckens.
“And the home pregnancy test kit is a good analogy because 20 years ago you needed to go into your doctor’s office and speak to your doctor and get a test approved to find out if you were pregnant, and it could take hours to days.
“We want to do the same thing for measuring lead in your drinking water at your tap. We’ll sell you a test kit that costs a few dollars and will tell you accurately -- repeatedly, reliably -- how much lead’s in that water any second of the day you want to know.”
Volckens’ research interests -- including aerosol technology, air pollution-related disease and similar public health challenges -- naturally inspired him to found AST.
“It was probably more iterative, but I did have a couple ‘aha’ moments when I realized I was using the very technology that was causing me to complain because it was too expensive and too slow,” he said.
“And I did realize at one point, ‘I’m an engineer, I’m a problem solver, why am I complaining about this and not just spending more time trying to solve the problem?’
“And that represented a fundamental shift in my research towards developing these user-friendly, low-cost technologies.”
Director of the Center for Energy Development and Health at Colorado State University, Volckens holds a Ph.D. in Environmental Engineering and has affiliate appointments in several other departments.
AST’s work is funded largely by federal research grants through the Small Business Innovation Research Program. These commercialization grants are intended to take valuable scientific innovations from early-stage startups, de-risk them and help bring them to market.
AST is now selling enough units to fund much of its production and some R&D.
The UPAS “outperforms the existing technology in almost every way,” Volckens notes. “It’s got a longer battery life, it’s quieter, it’s more sophisticated, it’s lighter, it’s smaller, it’s programmable with your cell phone.
“These are all kind of simple innovations that you see with many products but haven’t made it into the environmental measurements field to date.”
AST’s products will also make field testing less demanding for food distributors and producers. It’s a good value proposition considering the massive liability involved. The UPAS, mPAD, and Chemometer -- which measures heavy metals in water samples -- are currently being used by researchers and environmental consultants.
“We sell the technology at this phase to early adopters to get that critical feedback on all the possible ways it could be used and all the things that go wrong with the technology that we haven’t anticipated yet,” said Volckens.
“That ultimately is the de-risking process that needs to happen.”
For all the merits of these products in their current state of development, it will be some time before they become commercially available. In the meantime, AST will be fine-tuning, scaling production and raising capital.
“De-risking also involves bringing your costs down,” Volckens said. ”Proving that we can build a thousand of these in a week if we need to and they’ll all perform well.
“All of those are sorts of activities that an early-stage company needs to do in order to become attractive for investors.”
In a nutshell, AST’s products can be likened to blood glucose monitoring kits or home pregnancy tests in that they will allow people without technical training to affordably monitor things that now require expensive professional expertise.
Volckens and his research team are highly optimistic.
“I’m excited about the fact that our products are going into the hands of researchers and decision-makers and helping them do their jobs better," he said. "To me, that is real impact in a career.
“And I hope that in the long-term that impact only grows as we sell our products directly to consumers in need.”