Right idea can be followed by dead ends

By

Published:

 

I completely agree with the Thomas Edison assertion that “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” I will use my company’s story of developing the CI-900 Ethylene Analyzer for the agricultural industry to illustrate.

In 2011, a local inventor approached me with a newly patented technology that he claimed would be a great fit for our company’s product line. His ethylene gas sensor, based on a patented gold nano-foil technology, would supposedly detect ethylene with very high sensitivity and precision.

Such a tool would be important to our customers in food storage and transportation industries. Ethylene is an invisible gas produced by plants as a hormone at various stages of the plant’s life. It is most commonly used to induce ripening, especially of bananas and tomatoes, and elimination or suppression of ethylene can help keep fruits from ripening. Both are important in timing the delivery of certain foods to market.

The inventor was correct in his assertion that the ethylene sensor would fit in our product line that included other gas analyzers. What really intrigued me was the prospect of adjusting our company focus from food research to food production, a much larger market. We could not afford to license the inventor’s technology, but we agreed to collaborate with his licensee in France and offer their instrument in our product line. It turned out that the instrument didn’t work very well, but as we traveled further into the applications for the instrument, our understanding of the scale of the opportunity grew.

After more than a year of unfilled purchase orders and poorly performing products from the French company, we decided to engineer the product ourselves.

We acquired a sensor from a California company called Interscan, studied it and compared it to the gold nano-foil sensor. We discovered that the sensitivity was not much different even though it was based on chemistry first patented in 1970. It was up to us to layer on the innovation to create a useful product.

The question at hand was “What physical property is different in ethylene vs. alcohol and how can we exploit that difference to separate the gasses?” The answer was amazingly simple. Ethylene was insoluble in water, while alcohol and most other interfering gases were extremely soluble. We designed an instrument that bubbled the gas stream through water to separate the measurable ethylene from the soluble gasses (patent pending).

After creating a more functional product, innovation and changes to our business methods were required to capitalize on the product’s commercial (non-research) application.

All of our CID Bio-Science instrument distributors were very focused on selling products to local universities. They knew the professors and understood the requirements of research and teaching. We needed to innovate and change our business methods to capitalize on the application of this product in commercial produce handling. We required either new departments within existing distributorships or entirely new distributors who understood the requirements of packing houses, warehouses, and produce transporters. We decided to establish a new brand so we could create a new distribution network separate from CID Bio-Science.

As we began demonstrating the instrument in both portable and fixed applications, potential customers’ commercial clientele observed the very fine sensitivity of the device as constantly changing digits and interpreted the activity as an indication that the device was unstable. We modified the data display to show the signal primarily as a graph, which gave the user a better perspective of the stability as well as the direction and rate of any change. This innovation enabled us to appeal to non-scientists.

In conclusion, the initial innovation that set us down the path to creating this product was discarded along the way. Yet dozens of other innovations allowed us to create a singularly innovative and widely useful device. We had, through inspiration and perspiration, developed and marketed an excellent Ethylene Analyzer that has been successful in both the research and commercial markets.


Leonard Felix is president of CID Bio-Science, Inc. and Felix Instruments, both based in Camas.