Exclusive Interview With SciAps Inc. CEO and co-Founder Don Sackett

Q: Could you please describe your role at SciAps?

A: I am the co-founder of the business and also the Chief Executive Officer (CEO). I lead the setting up of the distribution, the marketing, as well as helping to determine what the product should do, in terms of what the customers want to buy.

Q: How did you decide to go into portable instrumentation?

A: I got my Ph.D. in Nuclear Physics. Then I took a job at a start-up company that was developing handheld X-ray fluorescence analyzers. What I find fascinating about portable analytical instrumentation is that it is a wonderful intersection of science (chemistry and physics) and mathematics and also has a lot of interesting commercial opportunities.

Let me give you a little more background. My last company was called Innov-X Systems. We started that company in 2001 and we made handheld X-ray fluorescence analyzers. I sold that business in 2010 to a large industrial company. In building up Innov-X, I spent a lot of time in the field, learning how companies needed the instruments and what they needed to measure. I think that gave me a pretty good appreciation of how to use it, what the field instrument needed to do, and how it needed to function.

I think it’s very interesting when a customer comes to you and says, “I need to measure this kind of material at this site. How would you do that?” It’s a very interesting puzzle to try to figure out. So the question is always, “Can we modify an instrument to make that measurement for that customer?” Of course, you have to ask a bunch of commercial questions. How much will it cost to make that modification? Are there other people that want this too?

Don Sackett

Fundamentally the question is, “Can you measure this material?” It’s an interesting puzzle to try to solve. That’s what really attracted me to it. And I have been working in this field ever since.

Q: Can you tell me more about the SciAps product line?

A: Our flagship product is a handheld analyzer based on a new technology called LIBS or Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy, which allows you to determine which elements are in a material and their concentration. What we are excited about in this new product is that it can basically analyze every element in the periodic table, from hydrogen to uranium. Our technical team has solved some really challenging problems, allowing us to put LIBS technology into a handheld analyzer. This instrument has the spectral range to analyze every element, yet is also a very compact, portable system.

While we have the LIBS unit that measures elements, some customers want to measure compounds and minerals. That’s why we have the Raman and the near-infrared products that are portable as well. We can measure both. Our mission is “any element, any compound, any mineral anywhere on the planet.” Our idea is to have products for every analytical application.

The typical LIBS customers need to measure the elemental content of their material: the petrochemical industry, the pharmaceutical, the food industry, the mining as well as the metal industry, or the heavy transportation industry, aerospace, all of the refineries; so there is a very wide range of users of these materials.

Q: Could you expand on the choice of the city of Laramie, Wyoming, for your company?

A: Our business is located in Woburn, MA, just outside of Boston, and we have a large facility in Laramie, WY. Our presence in Laramie is due to one of those opportunities that comes along that we felt was a great fit for our business. There was a company in Laramie called DeltaNu. They made handheld Raman analyzers. We bought that business because we believed they had good technology and dedicated employees. We felt with some product updates and with access to our distribution channels their products could be very successful. The second reason was that they had a fully ISO 9001 certified manufacturing facility, so we didn’t have to recreate that infrastructure in Boston. It’s been a good move for us, and our plan is to keep growing the Laramie operation. The handheld LIBS unit will be manufactured there.

Q: Sounds like there are a lot of exciting things going on at SciAps. Can you tell me a little bit more about your team? 

A: One co-founder is our CTO, Dave Day. Dave was also at a smaller company making handheld near-infrared analyzers. His business was sold to a large instrumentation company and, after a transition period and some time off, he, too, was looking for another entrepreneurial opportunity. We met and talked about what our previous instruments had done, some of the shortcomings, some of the things we would have liked the instruments to do, but at the time technology was not capable. That’s when we had an idea to try and develop a good portable LIBS analyzer. Our other co-founder is Gary Lortie, our CFO. Gary was the CFO at my previous company from 2007 through the sale of the business. Gary says he does all the things that Dave and I don’t want to do—finance, HR, oversee operations, administrative things. This is all true and it’s what makes us such a productive team.

The three of us had several meetings before we decided to start the business together. I really wanted to come up with a unique product. To me, unique meant a handheld that could do all of the elements without limitation, unlike portable XRF. So I talked with Dave about how we might design a unit to do that. Then we worked together and did some tests. We bought some equipment and did more tests to figure all of this out in early 2013. That’s when we decided that this technology could really work, and we raised some money to start the company.

In conclusion, I am really optimistic about the future of handheld LIBS. Having spent nearly 20 years in the portable XRF industry, it’s interesting to see a new technology that overcomes the limitations of portable XRF. The XRF analyzers are really good analyzers, but the low atomic number elements either cannot be analyzed at all, or not at low enough concentration levels.

Let me give you one example. We were looking at some samples for a large user of aerospace aluminum alloys. Our HH LIBS unit easily measures the 1–2% Li in some of the newer aluminum alloys. There’s no way any handheld XRF analyzer could ever do that. This is what motivated the founders of SciAps to start a new business and develop the LIBS analyzer. We really started it by the idea to make a single portable analyzer that could measure every compound and every mineral.

Thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing more about your new analyzer at Pittcon, Booth #1221.

Maria Stone, B.S., is a high-tech industry reporter from the San Francisco Bay Area; e-mail: mstone@comparenetworks.com .