Spectrometer success story started in Delaware
When Detective Bill Ward of Quincy, Mass., walks into a drug raid, he’s usually armed with something made in Delaware.
It’s not the .40-caliber weapon in his hip holster. It’s his Tactic ID-N handheld spectrometer, assembled on a Newark cul-de-sac.
By just pointing the laser on the end of the two-pound unit, he can identify the contents of a pill in a bottle or a bag of powder in seconds without even removing the drugs from their container.
For most of his 18 years on the narcotics squad, Ward would whip out a drug-testing kit that worked like a pregnancy test. He’d spend five to ten minutes swishing powders in liquids.
Nowadays, he just he scans the drugs right through their containers, and, in a flash, his Tactic ID-N scans its library of nearly 1,000 drugs for a match. In less than a minute, it even tells him what substance was used to dilute the drug.
“This made it so much simpler'” Ward said. “You can carry it around in your police car and jump out and test something, and you’re out of there in a minute or two. It’s a great tool for law enforcement.”
The Tactic ID-N was born at the end of a nondescript street in a Newark industrial park. It and its close cousins, the Tactic ID-GP and the Nano Ram, are the products of B&W Tek, an advanced instrumentation company.
The private company was founded by entrepreneur Sean Wang, a Chinese immigrant who came to the United States in 1985 to enter a doctoral program in electrical engineering at the University of Delaware. Not even two decades later, he has more than $10 million in annual sales and 130 employees around the world.
Components are manufactured in a Chinese factory. Designers and engineers work in Newark, where high-end scientific-grade products are manufactured. Sales offices dot the globe – Japan, China, Germany England, Taiwan and the United States.
The short list of customers includes Pfizer, Eli Lilly, L’ Oreal, the DEA, the USDA, DNREC, the U.S. Department of Defense.
Jack Zhou, the company’s chief operating officer, said he’s confident the company will grow to $50 million in three to five years.
The common thread in B&W Tek products is the laser, a laser that can interact with a material. The way the light interacts with the sample tells the user information about it.
B&W Tek married the light to spectrometers, computers, electronic libraries and touch screens to make handheld spectrometers that weigh less than two pounds and cost much, much less than their full-sized brethren.
First responders use the Tactic ID-GP to swiftly identify explosives and unknown chemicals. Pharmaceutical companies use the Nano Ram to identify massive quantities of incoming raw material without unwrapping it. Junkyards can use B&W Tek spectrometers to sort metals in a flash. Recycling centers sort plastics.
The handhelds list for $20,000 to $40,000. Some resemble an oversized cell phone, circa 1983. Others look like battery-powered drills.
Big advantage: It can leave the lab and go on road trips to drug raids, junkyards, warehouses, recycling centers and disaster sites.
Biggest advantage: Like a cell phone, anyone can use it. The icons and IDs are so simple that no user manual is necessary.
B&W Tek also serves as an original equipment manufacturer for other companies. One project got everyone in the plant talking: They make Pharmanex’s bio-photonics scanner, which uses optical signals from a laser to scan skin and determine the level of antioxidants in a body in fewer than 60 seconds. It sold more than 10,000 units – many to Life Pak, a supplements company that used them to prove the potency of their vitamins.
Several B&W Tek employees tried it. Generally, smokers got low scores and vegetarians got high scores. Zhou said he took the vitamins and scanned his own skin before the units went out the door. He did see a difference before and after taking the supplements.
“I’m not taking them anymore, because I’m not on this project, but they worked,” he said, laughing.
B&W Tek has seen the future, and size does matter. The plan is to keep it miniature.
The company’s newest projects focus on innovative medical technology that once would have seemed straight out of science fiction.
When a fertility lab needs to know which eggs have the highest level of metabolic activity, he may use a B&W Tek handheld device.
When a general practitioner wants to quickly assess a patient’s overall health, she may use a B&W Tek handheld to scan the patient’s fingernail and glean information.
“We’re miniature and portable. That’s what gives us the competitive edge,” Zhou said. “We don’t want to go head-to-head with the large instrument companies for those instruments that sell for $100,000 to one-third million,” he said.