An Introduction to Spectrometers and Spectrometry

September 24. 2017. 6 mins read

Technology is largely fascinating, though some fields are more alluring than others. Virtual reality and robotics are pretty easy concepts to understand, while technologies like optogenetics or blockchain are not nearly as accessible to the average layperson. Nonetheless, we like to spend the time it takes to understand them so we can keep our readers up-to-date on what technologies are showing promise and how these technologies might affect their portfolios. We’re usually made aware of up and coming technologies by some interesting fact that comes screaming across the news outlets attracting public interest before it dies a quick death in favor of other important news like celebrity gossip. The next time you hear about it will be when a company begins selling some interesting product that uses it.

Just a few weeks ago, you may have seen something in the news about a pen that can be used to detect cancer with an accuracy of up to 96%. This is actually old news. We first came across a cancer sniffing tool more than four years ago (a small company called Medimass which was since acquired by Waters Corporation). The technology behind this incredible tool is something called “spectrometry” and frankly, it sounds boring AF. That’s where we come in to sort you out with an interesting look at spectrometers that can be used for identifying everything from cancer to spoiled milk.

Spectrometry vs. spectroscopy

The first thing that you’ll find confusing is the nomenclature. Each word starts with “spectro” and then diverges into “metry” and “scopy”. The term “metry” refers to measuring something while the term “scopy” refers to looking at something. In both cases we are going to be using light to interact with matter. It’s at this point that things immediately start going downhill and the yawn-inducing technical explanations start to make even the most studious of MBAs call it a day. Instead, we’ll use an analogy. Remember on Star Trek where they used to pull out that handheld device and point it at things and then the device would tell them cool things? That’s what spectrometry is all about.

What is a mass spectrometer?

Now that we know that spectrometry is simply just pointing a handheld device at isht to know what it’s made of, we need to briefly touch on the various techniques that make this possible. Here are the various techniques and when they came about courtesy of an extensive presentation on the topic by John Hopkins University:

Source: John Hopkins University

The most popular techniques (and the ones you’ve perhaps heard of before) are mass spectometry and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). Maybe the most accessible explanation of what a mass spectrometer is comes from a company that builds these devices called Jeol (TYO:6951).

A mass spectrometrist is someone who figures out what something is by smashing it with a hammer and looking at the pieces.

If we have a sample of matter, and we want to understand more about the composition of said matter, then we can stick it into a mass spectrometer and learn more about it. The latest technique known as nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) isn’t exactly something you can walk around with very easily. Here’s a look at an NMR machine from Jeol:

That’s not exactly what we saw Captain Kirk pulling out of his pocket. Until these devices can be miniaturized such that we can carry them around in our pockets, they’ll hardly be accessible to the average lay person like ourselves. That’s why the notion of a pen that can detect cancer is so interesting. That’s something that your average lay person can see themselves using. Then you peel back the covers and find out that’s hardly the case. Here’s a look at the cancer seeking “pen” called iKnife which was being developed by Medimass:

Using the term “pen” is slightly misleading when you realize that it’s attached to a giant fcuking machine. The pen that was in the news recently seems to work in the same manner and consequently is probably also attached to something you’d never find on the deck of the Starship Enterprise. This illustration we found on The Verge confirms our suspicions:

Pen attached to giant machine – Source – The Verge

Until we can get these things down to a pocket sized application, then that Gene Roddenbury guy was full of it. That’s how we felt until we came across a company called Consumer Physics.

Consumer Physics and SCIO

Click for company websiteRegular readers will know our thoughts on crowdfunding which align fairly well with our thoughts on other “investment themes” that are likely to put you in the poorhouse like ICOs, OTC stocks, and good quality smack. The companies behind crowdfunding ventures are often unable to raise venture capital (which is why they pursue a crowdfunding route in many cases), but that’s not the case when it comes to an Israeli startup called Consumer Physics which has taken in $11.47 million in funding so far. (It seems like every time we turn around now we’re coming across a startup from Israel which is why our series on Israeli AR/VR and Israeli AI startups are proving to be quite popular.)

The technology being developed by Consumer Physics is called SCiO, and it was first proposed in a very successful crowdfunding campaign which debuted in 2014 and raised a whopping $2.7 million in funding. Then several years later, we see that there was some controversy around the Kickstarter project with a status being displayed stating that the sensor is “subject to an intellectual property dispute“. We’ve reached out to Consumer Physics on that, but the reality is that nobody seems to care. The product is available and being targeted for large commercial deployments like this one announced in February 2016:

Analog Devices, Inc. (ADI) and Consumer Physics, Inc. (CP) today announced a collaboration to develop a sensor-to-cloud personal and industrial Internet of Things (IoT) platform that analyzes liquids and solids, including food, plants, drugs, chemicals, the human body, and a variety of other materials. The two companies plan to embed CP’s SCiO technology for material sensing into smartphones, wearables, industrial, and medical applications.

Most Kickstarter projects fail because inexperienced leadership teams underestimate just how much hard work it takes to execute on a product design and deliver it to customers. It’s also incredibly time-consuming to make sure to address each and every “mine doesn’t work and your product sucks” comment that sprouts up on social media in order to preserve your fragile reputation in today’s era where everyone is an armchair CEO. In the face of all that adversity, Consumer Physics has managed to deliver a product that looks like this:

A meaningful way to validate the capabilities of any product is by looking at who buys it (unless they’re a celebrity). In the business world, having the world’s largest private company decide to use your product means that you did your job properly. With 2015 revenues of more than $120 billion, agribusiness giant Cargill decided to build a product around SCiO technology called Reveal which is being offered to cattle ranchers as a way of assessing feed quality:

Helping cows with their diets

The possible uses for this sort of technology extend well beyond “suggested uses” like farming, food, and beverages. These would make excellent diet tools for those people who lack the mental fortitude needed to lose weight and turn towards technology for help. Other uses might lean more towards the nefarious. Imagine you’re a female out drinking alone in some foreign country and you think the bartender’s a bit on the shady side. Wouldn’t hurt to quickly scan your drink for signs of GHB. Or maybe you bought some GHB and you want to make sure the guy didn’t sell you something watered down. Same thing goes for the multi-billion cocaine industry, or even the pill industry. Imagine you were a guy who made a living in Ibiza selling pills and you needed a way to differentiate your product:

We’re not advocating drug use because drugs are bad and all that, but imagine the same transaction from the buyer’s perspective. Sure, the guy isn’t going to appreciate you scanning his pills with your Star Trek device but it’s better than popping some bad MDMA. Where are we going with all this? We’re trying to point out that SCiO should just sell these things as a blank slate option where people can come up with their own creative uses. And they are, which brings us to the price point of the device. Assuming you just wanted to buy the bare bones device for personal use then that will cost you $299. You can order one here.


It’s at this point that we’ve sufficiently exhausted our Star Trek analogies so we’ll leave you to think up all the various creative uses you can come up with for this technology. Some of you MBAs out there could probably find some prosperous business models to build around SCiO so go ahead and download their development kit and get started. Seek out new products, new product applications, and boldly go where no MBA has gone before.


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