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U.S.-based company positioned to become a global ‘player’ in explosives trace detection
Since 9/11/01, two international companies -- Smiths Detection, of the UK, and Morpho Detection, of France -- have largely dominated the explosive trace detection business, but now a relatively small U.S.-based company, Implant Sciences Corp., headquartered in Wilmington, MA, has taken many of the management, technical and financial steps it believes are necessary to position itself to compete successfully in this fast-growing security niche.
Implant Sciences was established in 1984, when its founders conceived of a method to implant radioactive seeds in humans for the treatment of breast and prostate cancer -- hence the name Implant Sciences. Over the next two decades, however, it behaved like a small business innovation research (SBIR) company, as it sought to win a wide range of small research contracts from U.S. Government agencies by coming up with bright ideas to address a variety of technical requirements spelled out in SBIR solicitations
. “As such, the Company was focused on fundamental science across a wide area of topics vs. being focused on excellence in product development in a specific industry, such as explosive trace detection for homeland security,” explained Glenn Bolduc, the current CEO at Implant Sciences, who took the reins of the Company at the end of 2008.
In its early years, the Company had done some brilliant technical research -- some of it based on the extraordinary brainpower of a handful of Russian scientists led by the entrepreneurs who founded the Company -- but it didn’t focus its energies in any one specific area, invest in a talented management team, find steadfast financial backers or develop strong and deep relationships with its prospective U.S. Government customers.
All that has now changed.
Implant Sciences has now sold off all of its extraneous business lines, except its explosive trace detection line; hired an impressive roster of top-tier executives and experienced operational managers; and launched an all-out effort to win the trust and confidence of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). It has focused particular attention on one unit within TSA known as the Transportation Security Laboratory (TSL), based in Atlantic City, NJ, which establishes technical requirements for the nation’s security screening equipment, tests candidate systems, and maintains a qualified products list for those products and systems that can meet its demanding standards.
“Since January 1, 2009, we’ve been a ‘pure play’ homeland security focused business,” Bolduc told Government Security News during an exclusive, all-day visit last month at the Company’s headquarters, just north of Boston. It has concentrated its attention on the development, manufacturing and marketing of two versions of its unique explosive trace detection technology -- a handheld version, called the QS-H150, which resembles a “Dust Buster” and sells for about $30,000 a unit; and a newer benchtop version, known as the QS-B220, which looks like a desktop computer with a built-in monitor, has a slot into which a swab can be inserted for rapid analysis, and sells for about $48,000 each.
The Company has become so focused on explosive trace detection that it is seriously contemplating changing its corporate name -- to get away from the word “Implant,” which no longer makes much sense. Bolduc told GSN that the Company has compiled a list of potential new names, whittled that list down to two finalists, and might make the switch in the foreseeable future.
Bolduc and his management team are convinced that the future for explosive trace detection is growing brighter day-by-day. They point to new applications for this technology in schools (where the equipment can be used to detect drugs carried on students’ bodies or hidden in their lockers) and in prisons (where the detection gear is particularly helpful in spotting drugs being smuggled into facilities by friends and relatives who are visiting inmates.)
But the most promising application for trace detection remains the war on terrorism, in which extremists continue to attempt to conceal explosives on transportation systems or in areas where people tend to congregate. In such scenarios, metal detection is becoming less useful, while explosive detection is becoming increasingly more important.
“Bad guys don’t use bombs from the ‘Acme Bomb Company’,” said Bolduc. “They’ve moved away from using metal bombs.” Instead, they’re assembling fairly ingenious devices (bombs) that use explosives, such as PETN, but do not have detectable metal parts.
He pointed to the first “underwear” bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who had planned to detonate a bomb while aboard a Northwest Airlines flight bound for Detroit on Christmas in 2009, or the thwarted effort to conceal explosives hidden inside a printer cartridge that originated in Yemen in October 2010, and was supposed to be transported by air to a Jewish synagogue in Chicago, or the most recent “underwear” plot in which an updated version of a non-metallic bomb (supposedly with an improved detonator) was intercepted when a Saudi double-agent turned in the lethal underwear bomb to Western-oriented authorities. In all of these threats, the explosive was non-metallic and therefore not detectable by X-ray or metal detection machines.
In fact, the folks at Implant Sciences support the notion that metal guns, knives or box-cutters no longer represent major threats aboard commercial airliners because cockpit doors have all been hardened (thus reducing the immediate threat to the pilots) and because they would expect the flight crew and passengers onboard a plane to be able to physically subdue a handful of threatening terrorists.
Bolduc pointed to a report issued in November 2011 by the Republican majority staff of two House committees, entitled A Decade Later: A Call for TSA Reform, which drew a similar conclusion about prevailing security threats.
“TSA’s operations are outdated -- the primary threat is no longer hijacking, but explosives designed to take down an aircraft,” that report observed. “Today, aircraft have hardened cockpit doors, armed Federal Air Marshals and armed pilots. Additionally, passengers and crew offer our first and most effective line of defense. These factors have drastically lowered the risk of a terrorist hijacking using a gun or knife. Consequently, TSA should prioritize its security measures to address the current threat of explosives.”
As TSA has come to recognize the importance of detecting non-metallic threats, it has begun to procure and deploy at U.S. airports what are known as Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) scanners, frequently called whole body scanners. These large portals are not intended to detect metal or explosives; they’re designed to detect “anomalies” of any sort which are concealed on a human body, beneath a traveler’s clothing.
“AIT works great,” Bolduc told GSN, “if you take everything off your body.” Thus, if a traveler empties his or her pockets of all coins, cell phones, keys, wallets, etc., an AIT machine might well detect a substantial item concealed beneath an arm, between the legs, or elsewhere. But those hidden items wouldn’t necessarily contain any explosives.
“If TSA deployed technology that detects explosives,” Bolduc argues, “you wouldn’t have to take off your belts and shoes, and empty your pockets.”
Bolduc and his top managers believe they have taken a number of important steps in recent years to position their Company to become a major competitor in the explosive trace detection segment of the homeland security marketplace.
Management -- After Bolduc was brought in as CEO, he recruited a major player in the explosive trace detection industry, William McGann, Ph.D, first as an advisor to the Company in 2011, then as its Chief Operating Officer and a member of Implant Science’s board of directors in 2012. “Dr. McGann is a pioneer in the explosive trace detection (ETD) industry, having co-founded Ion Track Instruments, the first ETD provider to receive TSA certification,” the Company said in a news release it issued last March. “Ion Track was subsequently sold to GE for $190 million, and became a core product offering in GE’s homeland security portfolio.” Those trace detection products and their related technologies were subsequently sold by GE to Morpho Detection, a unit of the Safran Group, a French technology giant.
In addition to McGann, who brings a wealth of technology expertise along with decades-old relationships with key technology officials at TSA, Implant Sciences has also recruited industry veterans to fill top sales and marketing, finance, engineering, technology and manufacturing positions. One security industry observer told GSN that he considers Implant Sciences to be one of the best-managed small technology companies around.
Technology -- Essentially, there are two aspects of performing explosive trace detection: First, the detection device must gather a sample of the air from the environment being investigated. Second, the device must segregate the different molecules contained in such an air sample, and determine which of those molecules, if any, are actually explosive materials. As McGann puts it: “You have to sample the world, and then filter that sample.”
Implant Sciences’ approach to that process involves concentrating air particles into its handheld device, so they wind up on a built-in internal filter. An electrical charge is applied to the molecules trapped on the filter, which converts them into ions. Because ions of different materials travel at different speeds -- and those specific speeds are catalogued for all known explosive materials -- the detector is able to identify specific explosives by determining precisely how far they have traveled during a specific period of time.
The benchtop version of its explosive trace detection equipment works in a similar fashion, except a swab, which has been rubbed around in the target environment -- such as on the handle of a piece of luggage, or the outer clothing worn by an air traveler -- is inserted into the machine for analysis.
Implant Sciences is particularly proud of its patented “non-contact vortex collector,” which is an airflow device that could be incorporated into a portal version of an explosive trace detector that it might develop in the future. The Company’s vortex collector creates a cylindrical outflow of air -- creating what Company execs call a “tornado” effect -- at the body of the item or person being examined. The outer edge of this tornado revolves in one direction, strikes the person’s clothing or the item’s outer surface and dislodges any molecules that may be sitting there. Meanwhile, an inner column of air -- which rotates in the opposite direction -- creates a suction effect that draws the dislodged molecules into the filter, which then delivers the pre-concentrated sample directly to the detector in the portal device. Implant Sciences believes this technology dislodges and collects explosive molecules more effectively than any of its competitors’ comparable devices.
Relations with TSA – Perhaps most importantly, Implant Sciences has embraced the notion that winning TSA’s certification for its trace detection equipment is the key to its future. Its handheld device and its benchtop version currently are not included on TSA’s approved product list. Bolduc considers obtaining TSA’s blessing to be his number one priority. He acknowledges that many U.S. Government agencies will not purchase the Company’s trace detection equipment until TSA certifies it, and he also recognizes that many international customers -- whether governments or commercial businesses -- also look to TSA for its seal of approval. This has certainly been reflected in the Company’s sales to date -- out of over $30 million in total sales of explosive trace detection products, only $1 million has been sold in the United States thus far, while the remaining sales of devices have been sold overseas in 31 different countries, including China, India, Japan and Russia where the Company landed high-visibility sales to the Beijing Olympics, China Railways, Civil Aviation Administration of China, Japan Nuclear Power Plants, India Government and Russian airports, to name a few.
In cooperation with the Transportation Security Laboratory (TSL), Implant Sciences has helped TSA inaugurate the agency’s new Technology Optimization Partnership Process (TOPP), in which personnel at the TSL work side-by-side with the Company’s R&D staff, as Implant Sciences goes through the arduous process of trying to pass TSA’s Air Cargo Screening Qualification Test. The Company expects that to happen sometime this summer. By communicating with each other on almost a daily basis, and sharing data cooperatively, TSL and Implant Sciences are trying to develop a collaborative approach that is more efficient than the previous process, McGann explained.
Now that it has recruited a top-notch management team, lined up financial investors, developed state-of-the-art technology and launched an all-out campaign to win the approval of TSA, Implant Sciences is more than optimistic about the future.
The CEO recognizes this multi-pronged effort is an uphill climb. He recognizes that the Company continues to lose money on a quarterly basis, but he also believes that all of the hard work will begin to pay off in about 12 to 15 months.
Bolduc sees the global marketplace for his type of explosives detection technology as topping $1 billion. “I’ll take a 15 – 20 percent portion of that growing market anytime,” he says with a smile.