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

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technology development primarily through a variety of Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants from the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, and other military agencies. He estimates the grants total roughly $3 million.

Mini Gas Chromatograph

Mini Gas Chromatograph

But Seacoast doesn’t want to just develop technology for the government—it wants to sell the product in the wider marketplace. Last year, Seacoast Science introduced its first mass product, a compact gas chromatograph that is about half the size of a shoebox, which the company developed in partnership with Vernier, a Beaverton, OR, distributor of scientific instruments and products for the university, college, and other educational markets. The device, which sells for $1,750, also reflects another aspect of the startup’s strategy. “Because we’re just 12 to 13 people, we’ve gone out to look for industrial partners with marketing and distribution networks,” Haerle says.

In its development of chemical sensors for cell phones, Seacoast Science has been working with Qualcomm, the wireless technology giant based in San Diego. Seacoast’s Patel concedes that the widespread deployment of chemical sensors in ordinary cell phones could raise some privacy? objections. But he says, “The first level is handing them to the first responders—the police, security, emergency medical services, military. Even without getting into to the general public, that’s a big market.”

A few years ago, Haerle says, Seacoast started working with the springboard program at Connect, the San Diego nonprofit group that supports technology and entrepreneurship. “But we didn’t really fit their mold,” Haerle says. We had some funding, enough for four people. But we really weren’t interested in venture capital. We’d seen what had happened at Graviton, where a huge investment had brought in more executives than employees. And we knew that VCs would demand a one-to-three-year timeline to commercialization, which wasn’t enough time.”

So, instead of gunning for a big return on VC investment, Seacoast chose to use government funding to pursue niche markets. “The chemical sensing industry is very nichy anyway,” Haerle says. “You don’t get rich making chemical sensors, unless you’re selling oxygen sensors to auto manufacturers,” which are used in engine diagnostics and to monitor emission controls. In general, he adds, industry demand for chemical sensors depends largely on government regulations. Still, the market encompasses industrial process controls, quality assurance, and emission controls needed to monitor volatile organic chemicals, solvents, pesticides, and potential pollutants.

The company has been working with military agencies and the Department of Homeland Security because of their high interest in detecting chemical warfare agents and in monitoring U.S. stockpiles, although Patel says the military is showing broad interest in other areas. For example, he says, “We’ve been working with the Navy on a program to look at biofuels and the purity of refining needed to make fuels in remote locations. The Department of Defense is looking at this kind of thing to reduce their transportation cost by setting up a mini-refinery in Iraq, or someplace like that.”

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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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