We photograph the invisible
A frown in the laboratory turned into a research project at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU), which has resulted in a hypersensitive camera that can measure pollution and gas leakages, find impurities in food, and over time maybe even diagnose illnesses via patients’ breath. In contrast to existing cameras, it is smaller, faster and cheaper, and, crucially, it works at room temperature, whereas existing cameras need to be cooled down to minus 200 °C.
Not only does IRSee’s infrared ‘chemical camera’ see 1,000 times better than the existing standard cameras, which can photograph radiation in the mid-infrared area, but the truly revolutionising thing is that the camera can be used at room temperature. Normally, an infrared camera can only take sensitive pictures at minus 200 °C.
Naturally, we are not talking about taking pictures for the family album. What makes IRSee’s infrared camera pioneering is that “it can take pictures of the things we don’t see,” as Jes Broeng, senior executive consultant at DTU Fotonik Innovation, puts it.
Christian Pedersen, Group Leader at DTU Fotonik, Peter Tidemand-Lichtenberg, Associate Professor at DTU, PhD, and Jeppe Seidelin Dam, Researcher at DTU Fotonik, are the inventors behind the project, which has its origins in DTU Fotonik. They are also the founders of the company IRSee, which will market the new camera. Peter Tøttrup is co-founder and CEO of the company.
The researchers call their invention ‘a chemical camera’, because, among other things, it can be used for chemical analyses by photographing gases. Almost all large, complex molecules each have their own chemical signature, or ‘fingerprint’, in the mid-infrared area, where the wavelengths are longer than the light that humans can see. The characteristic fingerprint of chemical substance, i.e. its spectrum, emits or absorbs radiation which is invisible to the human eye, but which extremely sensitive camera can take pictures of.
“It works in the same way as when you can see the rotten area on an apple with the naked eye,” Peter Tøttrup explains.
“It started purely as a research project where we worked with laser. But then we started seeing strange artefacts in the laser beam, which made us wonder why some extra light dots were appearing,” says Christian Pedersen.
The term artefacts is used about something that you observe in a scientific experiment, which is not present ideally, but which is a result of the actual procedure.
A green laser pointer can be generated by means of two red photons – light particles – put together. This was what the researchers were originally “messing about with” as they say. “We wanted to show that two different laser wavelengths can be added together in non-linear crystals and thereby create completely new wavelengths. But, in addition to this, we saw that an image formation was taking place. We went into the tiniest detail and finally realised, that image information was appearing: The dots turned out to be image formations, originating from the original lasers,” says Christian Pedersen, who still sounds slightly surprised. The discovery was an unexpected child of the first experiments.
The researchers’ original surprise back in 2006-7 resulted in an article that was published in the prestigious Nature Photonics in 2012. “They wouldn’t believe it either, and it took quite a while to convince everybody,” says Christian Pedersen, with a laugh.
We cheat a little
“The device works by the mid-infrared radiation being mixed with light from a laser beam in a special crystal. And then we ‘cheat’ a little, because if an infrared photon appears, we give it an extra kick with a laser photon, and then the mid-infrared photon becomes visible and can be registered by an image chip in an ordinary digital camera. We can do this at room temperature, but similar sensitive measurements would require the camera to be cooled down to minus 200 °C,” says Peter Tøttrup.
“In the device, we change the wavelength of the light that enters, so that we can take pictures of the infrared light. We simply convert the light as it passes through our ‘lens’, and the chip in an ordinary camera is able to capture this light,” he explains.
The chemical camera can be used in two ways: Either light must be present, or a light source is needed to light up or transilluminate the object.
In the wake of the discovery followed speculations about how the camera could be used. But it was actually quite obvious: “It can be used exactly where ordinary cameras cannot be used in the infrared area – ours could, and then things really started rolling,” says Christian Pedersen.
Not only can the supersensitive camera be made smaller and cheaper than existing ones, it is also easy to transport, and, as mentioned, it does not need to be cooled down.
“Nobody else in the entire world is doing this. Some try. But they need to cool, and we don’t need to cool. Our nearest competitor spends 100,000 euros per year just on cooling their camera,” says Peter Tøttrup, with a certain satisfaction in his voice.
“Now we are developing the new technology, which can be used widely – just as the eyes. The camera is infrared eyes, and we are in the process of finding partners so that we can test it.”
Peter Tøttrup mentions the oil industry and leakages from power plants, and he believes that gas analysis “could be huge”. “With our equipment, we may be able to detect gas leakages in air from the petro-chemical industry. Statoil has invested about DKK 20 million in detectors that are to find gas leaks. We can do that much cheaper,” he says.
The new technology will benefit, not least, the efforts to create a cleaner environment, and it can ease the authorities’ monitoring. Air pollution in large cities with dense traffic is a serious health problem, and the new camera will be able to measure the level of gases such as NOx and CO2. This can even be done quicker and cheaper than by means of existing measuring methods.
In relation to chemical analyses, there are a number of other application possibilities, which at first, the inventors only dared dream about.
Sees through clothing
The camera can potentially identify plastic, so that the specific type can be determined. It can also see through clothing and packaging, and detect whether hazardous substances are lurking about. Here, an obvious, future possibility will be the prevention of terrorism. The device will also be useful for quality control by taking pictures of decay in meat, as well as of contamination and impurities in food.
Another future aspect is that the chemical camera can be used for diagnosing illness by analysing patients’ breath, measuring even small concentrations of specific molecules. In practical terms, this means that in the future, it will be possible to detect an illness such as cystic fibrosis if the breath contains cyanide. Or it could be a sign of lung cancer if patients have the chemical substances 1-butanol and 3-hydroxy-2-butanin in their breath. The technique can also be used for studying biological material, e.g. finding cell changes in living tissue, and over time, it may gain an important place in cancer diagnostics.
Clever heads from DTU
The researchers talk enthusiastically about their invention, describing how they went from realising they had an invention they could hardly believe was real, to finding it difficult mentally to move to the point where it could actually be used.
However, what is more unusual for researchers who have an invention they want to commercialise, the IRSee group has focused strongly on business development right from the start, says Christian Pedersen.
The group applied for PoC and GAP funds early in the process to achieve Proof of Concept. “That’s when things start moving at DTU. The invention gets out into the real world, and we get close to something usable,” says Christian Pedersen.
At this time, Peter Tøttrup, who has a background as a business consultant and venture capital investor, was helping DTU commercialise a number of projects, including the one that ended up as IRSee. “We contacted the company Haldor Topsøe, who could use the camera to gain insight into their catalysis processes, and we launched a project, which Topsøe funded for our mutual benefit,” he says.
The model for spinning out IRSee as a company consists in involving “clever heads from DTU as well as an external, commercial person with an ambition that it will all be a success,” as Jes Broeng expresses it.
“The key is to bring in experts, people like Peter Tøttrup, who have industry knowledge and a technical background. He has business knowledge, knows the researchers and can, so to speak, walk shoulder to shoulder with them. We can see that previously, what has been missing in innovation is the element where you can involve external resources for a long period of time.”
Looking for visionary clients
Regarding funding of the development costs, the group behind IRSee has chosen a model where they aim to earn money by carrying out client assignments in order to keep the rights and the ownership with the founders for some time. “We have not felt under financial pressure; we would rather have our clients commit to collaboration so that they have an invested interest. The project is client-funded, and Peter Tøttrup has invested his time,” says Christian Pedersen, who continues:
“When you start pulling in external capital, you cede shares, for instance, which means that usually there is not much left for the inventor at the end of the day. It is also an advantage if you have demonstrated that you can make money yourself; when at a later stage, you need to raise capital, it is not as expensive to procure more money.”
A COMPLEX TASK
DTU is interested in creating viable companies, and is a partner in the Copenhagen Spin-outs project, whose objective is to support the start-up of new biotech companies. Copenhagen Spin-outs was established in collaboration with two other research institutions, the University of Copenhagen and the Capital Region hospitals, as well as innovation environments, industry organisations, investors and research parks.
IRSee is based on a platform technology, which means that there are many, very diverse application possibilities for the technology in question.
It is a complex task to prepare a satisfactory agreement basis when establishing spin-outs based on a platform technology. Among other things, it must be ensured that DTU’s researchers retain their freedom of research within the field, while at the same time, the newly established spin-out gains rights that support and promote its viability. It is also important to consider that some inventors wish to remain employed at DTU, while others want to become a part of the new company.
In the working process related to IRSee, and other projects, DTU’s infrastructure has been developed in a direction where the barriers in connection with the establishment of spin-outs have been lowered, thus making the process easier. Emphasis is placed on supporting the inventors and making it attractive to work with commercialisation and spin-outs at DTU. One concrete initiative is offering inventors goal-orientated advice from the Bech-Bruun law office in order to secure the researchers’ rights and satisfaction with the agreement that is made. The inventors behind the IRSee technology have made use of this offer.
Asking a lot of the clients
“The project starts as technology driven, but you need to end up being client driven and hence application driven,” says Peter Tøttrup. “We try to figure out which is the best application, and we have asked a lot of the clients. It is important for all founders that you set up a company when you know that the clients are interested, and you know this when they enter into collaboration bringing something to the table, too. We have made two collaboration agreements and have two more in the pipeline – you don’t start by aiming for the big mass market. We want visionary clients who understand innovation.”
The inventors and founders of IRSee think that up until now, the universities have not paid sufficient attention to the business side when researchers’ ideas are to be realised.
“You have to establish contacts and present ideas to companies early in the process. The entire sales aspect must come in at an earlier stage, and we think that this is a task the universities need to learn to undertake, and it is very important that the people who approach companies have the necessary knowledge, and that they are at the same level as the researchers,” Christian Pedersen stresses. He adds: “People from the business community also like to speak with people who are similar to themselves.”
New business concept
“IRSee forms part of a new innovation model called Bridging the Gap, which we are currently developing at DTU,” says Jes Broeng. In October 2013, DTU Chemistry and DTU Fotonik received DKK 3 million from The Danish Industry Foundation for the establishment of the new model with the clear objective of creating sustainable, high-tech spin-out companies.
“We will draw on experience from our former work with spin-off projects here at DTU, and we are also inspired by the VIGO programme in Finland, which has raised more than DKK 100 million, resulting in a whole string of successful companies,” he says.
Read more about the chemical camera here: