Wednesday, April 9, 2003

Biode puts high-tech twist on measuring thickness

Published in the Current and the American Journal

What Biode Inc. has to sell is only slightly larger than a postage stamp, and the company hopes to reach as diverse a range of buyers. Their solid-state digital viscometer, built to measure the thickness of liquids from motor oil to shampoo, is in the testing phase and has generated interest from prospective buyers including the U.S. Navy and Procter and Gamble.

Biode’s office hides in the back of a building on Larrabee Road in Westbrook. Chief Technology Officer Kerem Durdag of Scarborough said the company was founded in 1986 to do research and development on ways to detect contaminants in liquids.

In the mid-1990s, the company chose to focus on commercializing one of the products it had developed, the viscometer. Most viscometers are mechanical instruments requiring very precise environmental conditions for proper measurements, Durdag said.

“The viscometry market is very mature,” he said. The successful companies in the sector have been around for 60 years or more, making the same type of equipment now as then.

They have a broad market base, though, one that is attractive to Biode.

“Anything that is gooey, (someone) will measure viscosity on it,” Durdag said. The usual method in industry today involves taking a sample of a fluid, like shampoo, somewhere in the manufacturing process, taking it to a lab for testing, and reading the results some time later to make adjustments in the process.

Real-time viscosity measurements are not possible most of the time because of the equipment required to take the measurements, Durdag said. Biode’s digital viscometer has no moving parts, which prevents it from “gumming up,” he said.

Biode’s device can fit in a pipe to give real-time data feeds, or can be used on a tabletop to handle samples from vials or test tubes. Connected to a standard PC laptop using a commercially available data-acquisition card and software, the viscometer can start reading data immediately and requires no power source.

Instead, it is what is called a “surface acoustic wave device,” which operates by vibrating on an atomic level, Durdag said. When the measuring surface is exposed to a fluid, the vibration changes as a result of “viscous damping,” allowing the device to measure how easy it is to shake the fluid around.

Biode has approached companies that are traditionally early adopters of technology, as well as large operations that might want in-stream process measurements.

Among the interested clients are Procter and Gamble’s shampoo manufacturing, beer companies that want to know how their malt syrup is doing, and the U.S. Navy.

“They like to do oil sampling on their ships at very frequent intervals,” Durdag said. Mechanical devices can’t work on ships because they require a level surface to base their readings on. So the Navy, at great expense, flies helicopters between ships and land-based laboratories carrying jars of oil to be tested.

The Navy is now testing Biode’s device, which would allow real-time readings even aboard ship, and may phase it in over time, Durdag said.

The company has taken advantage of a number of state business-assistance programs in the four years since it started work to bring the viscometer to market.

One of the most important services was the patent program at the UMaine School of Law in Portland, Durdag said. It allows companies to get access to patent attorneys at reasonable charges to protect their intellectual property rights.

“Maine tends to be fairly risk-averse to tech, when it comes to startups,” Durdag said. That makes it hard to get money, but the Maine Technology Institute has grants for this type of activity, and the Maine Seed Capital Tax Program is also useful, giving investors in qualifying companies 40 percent of their money back in tax credits. Maine Investment Exchange and the Small Enterprise Growth Fund also have played large roles in helping Biode raise the money it needed to continue development.

Part of the problem in the private sector was that Maine investors are used to short business cycles, more in line with agricultural or marine businesses, in which increased investment leads to higher yield almost immediately. Technology is slower, which can make it harder to find money, Durdag said.

Durdag was, however, able to turn to other state companies as component suppliers. The circuit boards are from Enercon Technologies in Gray and Knox Semiconductor in Rockland. “We’re leveraging a good amount of Maine stuff here,” Durdag said.

Maine companies may also be good buyers for it, he said. When the device goes on the market in the summer, the company plans to approach paper companies to see if they want to use it in their manufacturing process. Durdag is already working on a test at the UMaine paper mill test center in Orono.

“We’re crazy enough to think wecan do it,” Durdag said.