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Seattle Sensor Systems, Reborn in Twist of Fate, Spots Food Pathogens with a Little Box

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the size of a lunchbox. It is supposed to be able to simultaneously detect 24 different pathogens out of hundreds of possibilities, and to give the answer on the spot in 10 minutes. Suppliers have already been lined up to provide components, and a couple research versions have been assembled and sold to scientists at the University of Maine and Mississippi State University for $30,000 apiece. The company is built on a razor/razor blade business model, in which customers buy the machine first and then pay $250 for disposable chips that can be used about 100 times.

What was really needed, Furlong told his old friend back in February, was a CEO who could craft a business plan to seize the technology’s true potential, and tap into a bigger market than just a few researchers.

So Spangler jumped at the opportunity. She worked on crafting the business plan and her pitch for investment capital.

Then a couple of big breaks happened in April. Spangler got on the docket for the Zino Life Sciences Investment Forum in Seattle. She did well enough there to become one of three finalists competing for a $50,000 round of angel investment. After her presentation, someone in the audience from the food services industry approached her and suggested the tool might be useful for food safety screening.

Then, the very next day, another important thing happened. Spangler pitched the company again at the Technology Alliance’s “Innovation Showcase” at the Rainier Square Conference Center. While Spangler talked about the potential for military and research customers that day, a different customer from the food services industry was in the audience and made the very same point about the need for food safety screening.

“I was awake then and could smell the coffee,” Spangler says.

It made a lot of sense to Spangler. Today, there are big farms in places like California’s central valley that would like to do spot checks to see if the spinach they are harvesting is carrying, say, an E.coli or salmonella pathogen. Because the shelf life of spinach is only about two weeks, and testing takes two to three days, it’s not practical to do wide-scale testing across a lot of acres.

This got Spangler thinking about a new market, and running the numbers. No one really knows the total cost of food-borne illnesses in the U.S., although estimates from the USDA and FDA range between $6.9 billion and $35 billion. The more Spangler sized up the market, the more she liked it. She started rewriting the business plan to make this the company’s top priority.

“The nice thing about food industry is they have deeper pockets, and a faster sales cycle,” compared to academic researchers, Spangler says.

Of course, this new venture for Spangler is all still in its early days. The device needs a few design tweaks for the commercial market, “to make it prettier” and to ensure that it’s simple enough for someone to use without training, Spangler says. The financial projections are for the company to turn cash flow positive by late 2011.

But that’s not where Spangler’s vision ends for Seattle Sensor Systems. She’s scoping out the next new market, with something even smaller—a true next-generation handheld device. Something like that could be useful for cruise ships, or maybe in ambulances, Spangler says. That lighter device could be ready by 2014, she says.

Spangler expects to find out soon whether she has passed the due diligence phase with Zino, and will win the angel group’s $50,000 prize. Whether she gets it or not, the company is staying lean, watching its pennies for now as it seeks to cement some of these emerging relationships with customers. A lot needs to happen for Seattle Sensor Systems to make it big, but Spangler definitely has a spring in her step that says she believes it will happen.

“I don’t tend to sleep much,” Spangler says. “It’s fun and exciting. I find you put time into things you love. It’s not like work.”

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