As told to Leigh Buchanan
Ahura Scientific makes hand-held devices that instantly identify unknown chemicals, from red phosphorus in a meth lab to plastic explosives in a bottle at the airport. Another Ahura device analyzes the content of pharmaceuticals. CEO Douglas Kahn joined the company in 2005, and the company's revenue began to advance at the same rapid pace as its technology.
The founders were four research scientists and engineers who met at a small company and later worked together at Northern Telecom. Their original idea was to create laser and optical technology to support long-distance fiber-optic communications. In 2001, they raised $12 million, but the bottom fell out of telecom. They had already spent money on equipment, so they looked for other places to use that technology. Given the tenor of the times, the safety and security market was very tempting. They decided to develop laser systems that quickly identify liquid and solid substances at the site of a chemical spill, for example, or on a battlefield.
Until then, chemical identification was performed chiefly in labs, by Ph.D.s in white coats who might take hours or days to identify a substance. But if you're a firefighter or an FBI agent confronting something suspicious, you can't wait around for lab results. Maybe you try to clean the spill with water -- but water reacts badly with some chemicals. Or you're in a meth lab with potentially explosive materials. The people who operate meth labs tend not to use very good labeling systems. Sometimes it's important to know a substance isn't dangerous. Recently one of our law enforcement clients responded when someone hurled a container of white powder into a school. They instantly identified the substance as swimming pool cleaner, so classes weren't evacuated.
Our product supports rapid decision making under pressure. It identifies the substance and provides safety and treatment information in less than a minute. And it can identify as many as five different chemicals mixed together, which is something you see in activities like narcotics manufacture.
The founders recruited me in 2005, when the company was doing under $1 million. I'm an entrepreneur at heart, and over the years I've run everything from an Internet start-up to a billion-dollar satellite-services company. I was immediately bowled over by Ahura's research and development: They were designing and manufacturing all three critical components of their device in-house. And I was impressed that they had hired a top sales executive early on. Lots of start-ups have great technologies, but without someone connecting to the marketplace, you go nowhere. Since then, we've raised $17 million in two more rounds and expanded into multiple markets.
Around a third of our employees work in R&D, and two-thirds of those concentrate on new products. We have 35 patents either awarded or pending. In 2006, we introduced TruScan, a device pharmaceutical companies use to ensure their drugs contain the right ingredients. And we're developing a tool that analyzes the oxygen levels in blood. We've identified opportunities in five to 10 major markets, from mining to medicine. In five years, we should have a beachhead in every one.