By Tom Henderson
Small Times Senior Writer

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Five scientists at Sandia National Laboratories hope to do for civilians what they have done for the military: help save lives by building tiny devices that sense the air around them.

They have spun out a for-profit company that will take technology that helps the U.S. military detect chemical and biological agents in the field and convert it into products that will do everything from test air quality to detect early stages of diseases.


The five Sandia scientists who have
spun off their own company are, from left,
Angelo Salamone, Greg Frye-Mason, Pat
Lewis, Ron Manginell and Al Sylwester.

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MicroChemLab Technologies has begun talks with venture-capital firms and hopes to raise a first round of $5.5 million to cover the first two years of product development, staff hiring and other operations.

The founders had their first contact with the VC community at the eighth annual Technology Ventures Equity Capital Symposium in Albuquerque two weeks ago. They were one of 16 high-tech companies pitching their wares and business plans to representatives from 60 firms, one from as far away as Belgium.

Since then, MicroChemLab has had “a number of follow-up discussions with venture capitalists. There was quite a bit of interest,” said Al Sylwester, MicroChemLab’s chief executive.

The company founders will soon begin nonpaid leaves of up to three years from Sandia as part of a program that allows government researchers to return to the national labs if their spin-offs don’t succeed. They hope to have their own facility by the end of July.

“Our departure date depends on funding sources,” said Angelo Salamone, a scientist and MBA who is the chief operating officer.

In the meantime, Technology Ventures Corp., a Lockheed Martin company that helps Sandia spin out private companies, will provide temporary office space in an incubator facility.

MicroChemLab’s founders said prototypes of the company’s gas-phase sensors are able to analyze a wide variety of gases using a small hand-held device that can be inserted into a Palm Pilot or other personal data assistant — about the size of a credit card — that contains three microsystem components.

“This is an enabling technology platform,” Sylwester said. “There are some very exciting market opportunities. Obviously we can’t chase everything. We have to have the discipline to chase down those with a high probability of success.”


The gas analyzer works in three stages.

A tiny collector, containing a silicon nitride membrane and a mini-heater made of platinum, concentrates ambient gases. Just 2.5 millimeters square (dwarfed by a quarter), the collector uses a tiny pump to pull air over it and into a gel material, where the gases in the air concentrate. Current then flows through the platinum, heating up the heater, called a microhotplate, which uses 100 milliwatts of power and just six milliseconds to hit 200 degrees Celsius.

The heat releases vapor from the gel into an adjacent spiraling microchannel that is 100 microns wide and 400 microns deep. If unfurled, the channel would stretch for nearly a meter; coiled, it is about as wide as a small fingernail. The channel is coated with another material that first absorbs the vapor as it passes through, and then releases the different gases that make up the vapor in varying amounts of time.

A third device, a surface-acoustic-wave detector, then analyzes the separated gases.

All of this happens on site, in a few seconds, with greater accuracy than currently available in lab-based, 4-foot-long gas chromatographs, Sylwester said.

“We have the ability to find the needle in the chemical haystack,” he said.

The technology was originally developed to allow the military to test for such agents as serin, soman and mustard gas, as well as for trace evidence of various explosives and such volatile or semivolatile materials as methane, gasoline and solvents.

In health care, for example, the sensors could test a person’s breath for trace gases associated with various diseases.

They also could be used to test for indoor air quality, to detect trace amounts of chemicals while searching for explosives in luggage at airports and to detect drugs. “Testing indoor air quality is a near-term market space for us,” Sylwester said.

The composition of materials must still be fine-tuned, he said, but the basic research is done and products could be ready for sale in two years. Target markets include the pharmaceutical and chemical industries, their suppliers and individual consumers for use in the home.

“These are research or laboratory prototypes,” said Greg Frye-Mason, the company’s chief technology officer, “so there are several issues to overcome regarding reliability, manufacturability, etc., to get this ready for production.”


Sandia has had 40 researchers working on hand-held chemical labs. Researchers at the Livermore, Calif., facility work with liquids and those in Albuquerque, headed by Sylwester, work with gases.

“Every once in a while, one of us would say, `Wow, this is a great opportunity.’ But we didn’t decide formally to do this until six months ago,” Frye-Mason said.

The impetus, Sylwester said, is that private-sector executives liked the technology, but didn’t have the time and money to bring it to market.

“Everyone said, `This is great technology, but who’s going to make it for us?’ We will.”

The other founders are Ron Manginell, a specialist in fabrication techniques that are crucial to mass production of microsystem devices, and Patrick Lewis, an expert in gas analysis.

Salamone brings a rare combination of science and business to the company. He has a master of science degree and an MBA, and spent nine years with Motorola, first as an engineer and then in new-business development with its cellular operations. Currently, he works in Sandia’s technology management office.

All five founders have invested both sweat and cash equity in the company. “It’s liking having a second full-time job,” said Sylwester, who, like the others, continues to work fulltime at Sandia. He has been project manager for the gas-phase sensors.

“Without us doing a start-up, the technology might never go anyplace,” said Frye-Mason. “I’ve been involved in other projects here at Sandia where we had good technology but it never went anywhere because there was no main driver. This is a way to guarantee this technology makes an impact.”


Tom Henderson at [email protected] or call 734-994-1106, ext. 233.


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