Danger in the air: Company headed by UC Ph.D. develops hazardous-vapor detection device

Protech Sensors also aims for wearable technology

CINCINNATI -- How much would a portable sensor that could "sniff" out and identify hazardous vapors be worth?

To a large oil or gas refinery, about $700,000 an hour. That's how much it costs to shut down the plant to find the source of a leak, said Geethanga de Silva.

Such a device is the Holy Grail of sensor technology, he said. He believes he and Fred Beyette, who served as his doctorate degree adviser at the University of Cincinnati, are well on their way to creating one through their company, Protech Sensors.

How did the company begin?

Originally from Sri Lanka, de Silva immigrated in 2006 to study electrical engineering at Miami University. After he graduated in 2009, he began studying medical device technology at UC.

For his doctoral thesis, he developed a platform that could identify biomarkers in the breath of a sick person. These can be used to detect cancer and other diseases, he said.

He and Beyette later decided to avoid the lengthy Food and Drug Administration approval process and switch gears to make a sensor for the oil and gas industry.

"We thought it would be easy, but it's a crowded field," de Silva said.

How big is the market?

It would take about 100,000 sensors to equip every refinery in the United States, Geethanga said. At a cost of $100 to $500 per sensor, that adds up to between $10 million and $50 million.

If Protech could make its devices small enough that refinery employees could wear them, the market would be even bigger. Employees have wearable devices that can detect explosive gases, de Silva said, but not cancer-causing gases like benzene.

Protech has also been in talks with companies about using its sensors for monitoring of harmful gases in the home, da Silva said.

How have they funded the business?

Almost entirely through grants. In July, they completed Phase One of the UC Technology Accelerator and received a $40,000 grant. They plan to apply for inclusion in Phase Two, which would get them $75,000.

They've also received a $100,000 Small Business Innovation Research grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

What's next?

They're talking with the major players in the oil and gas industry, de Silva said, who are telling Protech that they will provide funding for multiple prototypes they can use and test. He hopes to get them in their hands within the next 12 months.

They were connected to those players through Chris Schaber, the entrepreneur-in-residence at the UC Technology Accelerator who was assigned as their adviser.

Academics don't always understand the business aspects of bringing an idea to market, Schaber said, but both de Silva and Beyette have been willing to learn. They're also not afraid to leave the lab and talk with customers, he added.

What's owning a business like?

It's a lot of work, de Silva said, but he wouldn't want to do anything else. He's excited about the company's potential to change the industry.

If it succeeds, he said, "I think that will be a big step in chemical analysis technology."

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