Seacoast Science Avoids VCs, Finds Other Money to Develop Tiny Chemical Sensors

I wanted to meet with the founders of Seacoast Science since I learned in late October that the Carlsbad, CA, startup is part of a government-sponsored initiative to embed tiny chemical sensors in cell phones.

Seacoast’s technology is impressive: tiny microchips—about the size of the typeface on a postage stamp—each containing multiple individual sensors, or “chemical capacitors.”

A microelectromechanical system (MEMS) in each sensor is coated with a chemically sensitive polymer, which acts like a sponge to absorb gaseous chemicals from the atmosphere. Once a polymer has absorbed a chemical, the sensor’s ability to conduct electricity changes in a way that can be precisely measured and compared with the conductance of known toxic or hazardous chemicals. If there is a match, the microchip can trigger an alarm.

Microchip Sensor on Stamp

Microchip Sensor on Stamp

I wondered how a little startup develops such specialized capabilities.

Seacoast president Louis Haerle and the vice president of research, Sanjay Patel, told me they started Seacoast with a third co-founder six years ago, after all three had left Graviton, a wireless sensor company that was one of San Diego’s more spectacular failures. (Todd Mlsna, the third co-founder, continues to serve as Seacoast’s chairman after leaving in July to join Mississippi State University as an associate professor of analytical chemistry.) Graviton went bust in early 2003 (four years after it was founded) after burning through $66 million in venture capital from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Qualcomm Ventures, Siemens, Sun Microsystems, Mitsui USA, Omrom, Nanogen, Earlybird Venture Capital, and In-Q-Tel, the venture firm formed in 1999 by the CIA.

Three Sensor Array

Three Sensor Array

Haerle and Patel tell me they learned a variety of lessons from their experience at Graviton. So far, for example, they have avoided venture capital funding—relying instead on government funding. They also are operating with a much narrower business focus and a relatively straightforward goal of commercializing their proprietary sensor technologies. “One of the things that didn’t work at Graviton was that they were trying to do everything,” Haerle says, “from the transducer to the customer interface and back-end development. We decided to focus just on the sensing.”

Haerle says they acquired the necessary rights from Graviton, which had licensed the underlying sensor technologies from the Naval Research Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. What Graviton found at the beginning of the decade, Haerle says, “was that the chemical sensors were not ready as a commercial off-the-shelf technology.” After founding Seacoast Science, Haerle and Patel say they figured it still would take another five to seven years to develop the sensing technology, and they tell me, “we’re still pretty much on schedule with that plan.”

Haerle says Seacoast funded its … Next Page »

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Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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