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University Spin-Off Developing Chemical ID Devices

Detection device

Liquid chemical detection device (Validere Technologies Inc.)

5 August 2016. A start-up company is licensing research from labs at Harvard University to make portable devices that quickly identify the chemistry of liquids. The company, Validere Technologies in Toronto, is creating chemical identification systems based on technology from the labs of Harvard chemistry professor Joanna Aizenberg, a co-founder of the company, and engineering professor Marko Loncar.

Validere is developing devices for first-responders to determine at the scene the chemical nature of spills at traffic or industrial accidents, rather than taking samples and sending them to a remote lab for analysis. The company’s systems are designed to be hand-held, inexpensive, and return their analyses instantaneously. The developers believe the technology can also be applied to inspection or quality-assurance tasks, such as verifying the octane of gasoline at pumps in service stations.

The core of Validere’s technology is “watermark ink” that determines a fluid’s identify by its characteristic surface tension. Watermark ink contains nanostructured photonic crystals, which can be programmed to respond to the volatility of liquids, making it possible to devise color codes for the results, thus taking the guess work out of identifying suspect chemicals. Aizenberg, Loncar, and colleagues describe the process in a Scientific Reports article published in January 2016.

The paper’s first author is Ian Burgess, a doctoral student at Harvard at the time and co-founder of Validere, now serving as the company’s CEO and chief technologist. “Many people focus on making hardware smaller,” says Burgess in a university statement, “but miniaturization often turns out to be the easy part. What’s difficult, and what our solution does, is to simplify the readouts to a level that you don’t need a technician to interpret the results. Anyone in the field can immediately know, on the spot, how to respond to a sampled liquid.”

Aizenberg’s research covers a range of interests behind the Validere technology, including nanotechnology and materials science based on models in nature. Validere’s solutions borrow from two biological models: butterfly wings that get their color from the surface structure rather than pigment; and brittle stars, relatives of starfish that can change color by changing the position of pigment cells on their outer surface.

“This idea advanced swiftly through Harvard thanks to an organic system that facilitates progress from discovery to application,” notes Aizenberg. Validere, founded in 2015, was incubated at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, where Aizenberg is on the faculty, and quickly attracted research grants from the U.S. Air Force and Department of Transportation, as well as support from Canadian science funding agencies. In April 2016, the company received $1 million in seed funding, and is now part of the Creative Destruction Lab accelerator program in Toronto.

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