Technology conceived in the Cold War changes with times at Sionex

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WALTHAM, Mass., March 22, 2004 — The evolution of Sionex Corp.’s chemical sensor technology reads like a brief history of modern geopolitics.

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It started with an idea in the mind of a Soviet scientist, studying how electromagnetic fields affected chemical molecules. After the Cold War he relocated to New Mexico State University, where he met a researcher at Draper Laboratory developing new micromachining technology. The two combined their work and some seed capital to launch Sionex in January 2000.

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Terrorism fears have since supplanted Cold War memories, but last year Sionex unveiled a timely product: a sensor that can be calibrated to identify explosives, germs or other materials. In today’s security-conscious world, the 34-person company has the wind at its back.

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Sionex did not originally plan to target homeland security and defense applications, Chief Executive Officer Lawrence Kaufman said, but the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks “definitely focused people’s attention.” Today those two sectors are among the company’s most promising growth areas.

Called microDMx, the Sionex platform conducts ionized molecules along a microfluidic channel sandwiched between two plates; one plate subjects the molecules to an RF field, the other a direct-current field. Those fields coax certain molecules to collect against one plate or the other, while the remainder traverse the channel to receptors on the far side.

More than 20 manufacturers have beta versions of the platform to see how they can use it in their products, Sionex marketing chief Anthony Bashall said. Varian Inc. signed a deal in October to use Sionex’ chip in gas chromatography equipment, and Bashall says the company is in “numerous discussions” with other potential customers. One is a defense contractor trying to build a mobile chemical weapons sensor; another is an automobile maker exploring how the chip can monitor engine emissions with millisecond speed, to improve fuel efficiency.

The Sionex platform is housed in casing the size of a cigar box. Gas is pumped into the system through one pipe, through the chip and then exits via another pipe. A computer can be jacked into the side of the box to monitor results. Using software and firmware, the customer can tweak the strength of the fields as desired to test for different molecules.

The sensor can cost anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on the desired application and volume manufacture. Exact chip designs are secret, but “there’s really nothing difficult. … The electronics is pretty straightforward,” Bashall said. “The big paradigm shift … is that in volume we can bring the manufacturing costs way down.”

The two scientific brains behind Sionex are Raanan Miller and Erkinjon Nazarov, Sionex’ chief technology officer and chief scientist, respectively. Nazarov spent years in the Soviet Union studying field-asymmetric ion mobility spectrometry (FAIMS), the science underlying Sionex’ platform. He jumped to New Mexico State University after the Cold War and continued his research there with fellow professor Gary Eiceman.

Miller, meanwhile, led a team at Draper Laboratory trying to apply micromachining techniques to Narazov’s original work. He and Narazov began collaborating, and Draper decided to spin off the work as a separate company.

FAIMS has received considerable attention from academic and corporate researchers alike for 20 years, according to University of Florida chemistry professor Richard Yost. FAIMS is well suited to trace explosives, because they typically have negative ions — a relatively uncommon trait, and therefore easier to identify.

Interest in FAIMS-related technology soared after Sept. 11, 2001. General Electric Co. acquired a company called Ion Track Inc. and used its platform to make full-body explosives scanners for airports. Smiths Detection Co. in the United Kingdom uses FAIMS for various chemical and explosives detection systems. Yost himself collaborates with Ionalytics Corp., an Ottawa company that makes desktop-sized spectrometry equipment based on FAIMS.

One challenge, Yost said, has been to make sensor equipment small enough to be economically feasible. While unfamiliar with Sionex’ micromachining, he said such a MEMS approach “would certainly open new applications. … I’m sure there will be markets for their technology.”


Company file: Sionex Corp.
(last updated March 22, 2004)

Sionex Corp.

300 Second Ave.
Waltham, Mass., 02451

Company’s original scientific research traces back to 1980s work in field asymmetric ion mobility spectrometry (FAIMS) in the Soviet Union. Draper Labs combined that work with micromachining technology and spun out Sionex in 2000. Unveiled its MEMS-based chemical sensor in 2003.


Small-tech related products and services
One product, the microDMx platform for chemical sensors, to be integrated into larger systems for detection of explosives, biological pathogens and other materials.

Wes Davis: chief executive officer
Lawrence Kaufman: founder and executive vice president
Raanan Miller: founder and chief technology officer
Erkinjon Nazarov, chief scientist.

Privately held, does not disclose revenues or profits. Has raised $16.4 million in two rounds of venture capital, including second round of $12.8 million in November 2003. Lead investors are Morgenthaler Ventures, Rho Ventures, Navigator Technology Ventures.

Customers, partners
Varian Inc. has signed as a customer, to incorporate the Sionex chip into its gas chromatography equipment. Sionex officials say more than 20 other large equipment vendors or manufacturers are in trials with the chip now, and expect more customer announcements in 2004.

General Electric Co.
Smiths Detection Co.
Various startups are also exploring FAIMS technology for chemical sensors, but are not necessarily using MEMS.

Barriers to entry
Demand for homeland security applications makes Sionex’s device popular at least in concept, but MEMS-based chemical sensors using FAIMS are still largely untested. The company also faces stiff competition from larger rivals that have acquired their way into the market.

Phone: 781-693-3300
Fax: 781-693-3399
E-mail: [email protected]


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