Wednesday November 7, 2012 0 comments
By Katrina Pfannkuch
FORT COLLINS -- In recent years, the demand for organic chemical testing that is quick, efficient and low cost has become increasingly important for a variety of applications, ranging from monitoring water pollutants to food and beverage safety.
To meet that need, Fort Collins-based OptiEnz Sensors has developed a very simple, effective solution - biosensor technology that provides real-time readings of chemical concentrations.
The OptiEnz biosensor measures organic molecule concentrations in water and other liquids and relays information from the sensor tip and the portable opto-electronic hardware - in real time. The concept was invented by Kenneth Reardon, OptiEnz founder and chief technology officer and a professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Colorado State University since 1988.
Brian Heinze, a senior biosystems engineer and research scientist who works closely with Reardon on the sensors, explains that the sensor's effectiveness is tied to the optical fiber tip of the sensor.
"We place a specific enzyme on the tip of the optical fiber that is then put into a liquid to measure contaminant levels," he said. "The enzyme 'recognizes' the contaminant measurements and transmits data readings back through the optical fiber to our opto-electronic hardware, which is linked to a computer via a USB connection, so data is recorded and measured in real time.
"When we want to change what's being measured, we simply use a sensor tip with a different enzyme."
Heinze said more than 10 years of research has gone into the technology for the sensors, helping refine their application and efficiency. The biosensors are currently intended for monitoring water and other liquids in the environmental, food and beverage and fermentation industries.
In short, the sensors are portable, easy-to-adapt to various industries and provide continuous real-time reading of contaminant data.
"The sensors make taking measurements easy to collect and allow monitoring in most any location," said Heinze. "You can get a reading within minutes, and the portable opto-electronic hardware piece is about the size of a modem, making it easy to carry or place on-site."
Heinze adds that the biological component (enzyme at the end of the fiber optic sensor) is easy to produce and change for various uses and industries.
Reardon first learned about biosensor technology during his postdoctoral research studies at the University of Hanover in Germany.
"In those projects, the application (for the sensors) was for fermentation monitoring within the industry to make antibiotics and other products," he said. "Then, when I started my academic career at CSU, I became very involved in bioremediation -- the use of microorganisms and plants to clean up contaminated water and soil.
"From those studies, I learned how bacteria use certain enzymes to break down and grow on organic chemical contaminants, including petroleum hydrocarbons, pesticides and chlorinated solvents.
"I also worked with environmental engineering companies and saw firsthand how difficult it was for them to get enough information about the location and concentration of the contaminants at polluted sites, and how that limited the design of good remediation approaches.
"So I began a project that combined my knowledge about biosensors and bacterial enzymes, along with the motivation to provide better measurement tools."
OptiEnz Sensors was formed in 2009 once the technology was ready for commercialization.
"It's been great to have the company at CSU during this period because we've had easy access to other university researchers and facilities, and it provided us with the time to further develop our technology and commercialization plans," Reardon said. "We've been supported by the Bioscience Discovery Evaluation Grant Program of the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, which focuses on launching university startups."
After a fruitful start at CSU, OptiEnz has transitioned into new offices and lab space at the Rocky Mountain Innosphere.
"We are tremendously excited to be in our new home as part of the Innosphere," Reardon said. "We'll have easy access to many great programs there, ranging from advisors to seminars, and we like the ecosystem of other startups and the energy that provides. This new setting also provides us with more external visibility, and a professional look that tells investors and customers that we're a real company."
"We are really excited to have another CSU- based startup at the Innosphere," said Mike Freeman, Rocky Mountain Innosphere CEO. "They have a lot of market potential, and we are happy to help them raise capital in addition to identifying and securing their early customers."
Reardon said OptiEnz is actively seeking investors interested in innovative startups.
"We're eager to talk about the many potential applications of our sensor technology," he said. "We're in the early stages of developing our marketing plan. One of the nice aspects of our technology is that we can easily change from making a sensor for a dairy chemical to a sensor for a water contaminant, so we're flexible.
"Our plans also include a handheld device prototype in a year, which will only be the size of about four iPhones," Reardon added.