That needs to change, says Dror Sharon. He’s the co-founder and CEO of Consumer Physics, a Tel Aviv startup trying to fill that gap with a handheld device called Scio. Scio is a scanner, about the size of a flash drive, that can determine the molecular makeup of objects like food and medication.
It emits a beam of light, which you can shine on, say, a piece of fruit. The device will then connect to a smartphone app that reveals the nutritional breakdown of that piece of fruit. It uses near IR spectroscopy, and though it’s long been used in scientific environments, Consumer Physics has miniaturized the technology and made it more practical for consumers. This seemingly small development could have massive implications.
We’re on the cusp of a revolution in internet-connected devices. In the not-too-distant future, the technology we wear on our bodies and spread throughout our homes will know more about our lives than we do. But that future, which companies from Google and Nike to Jawbone and Fitbit are creating, is partly dependent on our ability to make technology ever smaller without sacrificing power. That’s where Scio comes in. What’s most exciting about this technology is not what it can do today. Sure, learning the nutritional breakdown of an apple simply by shining a light on it is a fun party trick, but it isn’t groundbreaking. What’s truly exciting about what Sharon’s team has built is how many technologies and applications can be built on top of it.
“We are going to build the world’s largest database of fingerprints for our physical world and give developers a platform to create new applications,” Sharon says. That’s one key reason why Consumer Physics launched a Kickstarter campaign last month, after already raising venture funding from Khosla Ventures and others. The campaign has been a runaway success. With 33 days to go, Scio has raised more than $1.2 million, far surpassing the $200,000 goal. Kickstarter, says Sharon, is a way to “engage makers, hackers, and folks that could really take this to the next level.”
The Israel Connection
Sharon and his co-founder Damian Goldring met in 1993, when they were standing in the same line at a military recruiting base in Israel. They went through the same military program, received their engineering degrees from the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, and stayed in touch through the early days of their careers. It wasn’t until 2011, however, when they ran into each other on the beach in Tel Aviv, that they considered building a company together.
At the time, Sharon was working at a venture capital firm, while Goldring was developing technology for smartphone cameras. Both were looking for a new project, and Sharon raised an issue that had been dogging him for years: There was no way to “look up” objects in the physical world.
Thanks to the smartphone camera industry, a tremendous amount of time and money had already been devoted to miniaturizing optics technology. Sharon and Goldring figured they could apply those great technological strides to making a miniature spectrometer, no different from the technology being used in scientific labs around the world. “We both jumped out of nice jobs. We had kids that were several months old, and we said this is what we’re going to do and got started,” Sharon remembers.
The two founders gathered a team of physicists, engineers, data scientists, food technologists, optical design specialists, and others. They took a lean startup approach to prototyping, rapidly shipping new prototypes and killing off old features. The final product, which will begin shipping to Kickstarter backers later this year, works by shining a light on an object at a very specific wavelength. That causes the molecules to vibrate, and the light that’s reflected carries that object’s molecular signature. The Scio app then uses an algorithm to compare that signature to its entire database and provide the end user with the object’s molecular breakdown.
The first Kickstarter backers will be able to analyze plants, foods, and medication using the Scio app, but Sharon is hoping that’s just the beginning. The company has created its own Application Development Kit, and Sharon is looking forward to seeing what comes out of it. He also says that in the not too distant future, people who want access to this type of technology may not even need to own a Scio. “I’m absolutely positive something like this will be built into smartphones, wearables, and internet connected devices,” he says.
Sharon envisions smart refrigerators that can more accurately determine when food has gone bad, smart pill bottles that know if a drug is counterfeit, smart parking spots that know when you need more air in your tires, and more. He sees applications in agriculture, petrochemicals, and cosmetics, among other things, but he says Consumer Physics will be just one of many companies figuring out the best way to use this technology.
“Finding the appropriate use cases is going to be important,” says William Rosenzweig, managing partner of the science and health-based venture capital firm Physic Ventures, and one of Consumer Physics’ investors. “I’m intrigued and inspired by the fact that you can potentially crowdsource those ideas. An entrepreneur can now choose to create openness on a platform and doesn’t have to think of everything himself.”
Of course, not everyone is convinced this grand experiment will work. As Dr. Oliver Jones of RMIT University’s School of Applied Science recently told CNET, it’s possible that Consumer Physics “sacrificed sensitivity for size.” He said there could be too much guesswork involved in Scio’s predictions, because it has to compare each object’s molecular fingerprint to the rest of its database. That means, it might be making some leaps based on information it’s seen before, and not, in fact, giving users the exact molecular breakdown of the object in hand. “I think the spectra that the instrument generates are not particularly detailed, which is why what comes out is also not that detailed,” Dr. Jones explained.
Chris Harrison, assistant professor of chemistry at San Diego State University, says another issue is that the Scio may not take into account the entire sample it’s testing, and might only measure the object where the light is hitting it. Still, he says, “I think if it does what they claim it does for the price point they’re offering, that’s pretty impressive.”
Sharon, for one, says he expects the initial set of Kickstarter backers to teach him a lot about what still needs to be done. “We’re going to make this for real backers, real customer,” he says. “They’ll get it. They’ll like it or they’ll hate it. But we’ll talk to them.”
Source: wired.com BY ISSIE LAPOWSKY