SBIR-STTR-Success: Agentase, LLC (FLIR Systems)
Chemical weapons have the capacity to inflict enormous loss of life on military and civilian populations. They can negatively impact econo¬mies, constrain national budgets, and create geopolitical imbalance. In order to mitigate these dreadful impacts, it is critical that chemical warfare agents be quickly de¬tected and effectively contained.
Products for the detection of nerve, blood, and blis¬ter chemical agents range from simple units that use col¬orimetric techniques (wherein the presence of a chem¬ical substance is indicated by a specific color change) to more complex systems that also use specialized equip-ment. Unfortunately, most colorimetric-based products (paper detection products or gas detection tubes, for instance) can be highly susceptible to chemical inter¬ference, sometimes resulting in false positive and false
negative results. More sophisticated approaches can be less sensitive to chemical interference but also more expensive to buy and maintain, and require highly trained operators to properly use. Despite the range of chemical warfare agent detec¬tion systems, there are very few that combine high sen¬sitivity, accuracy, and ease of use.
The U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) com¬missioned a Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) effort to address this critical national securi¬ty challenge. Under the STTR program, Agentase, LLC, a small business spun out of the University of Pittsburgh, developed an accurate, sensitive, low cost, and easy to use detection capability for nerve, blood, and blister chemical agents. The un¬derlying chemistry uti¬lizes enzymes (complex proteins naturally pro¬duced by living organisms that act as a catalyst for spe¬cific biochemical reactions) to drive rapid, color-based reactions with chemical warfare agents. Once applied to a surface (in a liquid solution, for example), a vivid color change indicates the exact location of contamination by a specific chemical warfare agent.
The technology is highly sensitive and specific to target agents, providing accurate results on only trace amounts of material, even at concentrations below levels that represent an immediate danger to life and health. Its sensitivity also provides the ability to deter¬mine whether decontamination was effective. The rap¬id, color-based reaction makes the capabil¬ity simple to employ, even by the untrained user. Because the underlying chemistry uses enzymes to drive specific biochemical reac¬tions, the technology is highly resistant to potential forms of chemical and environ¬mental interference that might be problem¬atic for conventional detection equipment. And because enzymes are not consumed in the reactions, only a very small quantity of an enzyme is needed to catalyze a reaction. Overall, the technology provides for immediate and thorough decontamination, reducing the hazard to personnel and equipment and assisting in the restoration of operational mission capabili¬ty, at a cost that is comparable to, or lower than, other available solutions.
The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) is the DoD agency responsible for countering weapons of mass destruction. Like ARL, they recognized the potential for this technology. Building on the STTR, DTRA provided funding to continue development. This stage of effort provided the bridge between tech¬nology development un¬der the STTR and ca¬pability delivery under an acquisition program office.
The Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense (JPEO-CBD), the DoD entity that manages the nation’s investments in chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) defense equipment, adopted the technology in the Do¬mestic Response Capability (DRC) Kit. The DRC Kit packages the chemical components into a simple, pen-like construct, an easy-to-use “point-and-touch” detec¬tion as well as a spray-based formulation of the same technology. The DRC Kit also includes the Chemical Hazard Indicating and Ranging Pack (CHIRP), a re¬al-time air monitoring capability using the same chem¬ical detection technology but coupled with GPS and wireless communications that relays data to a central command center software package.
JPEO-CBD fielded DRC kits to all 57 Army National Guard, Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Teams (WMD-CST) across the United States. National Guard units throughout every state in the country now maintain this capability to provide for detection, personal protection, decontamination, and medical monitoring against nontraditional agents.
JPEO-CBD also adopted the technology for its Contamination Indicator Decontamination As-surance System (CIDAS) program. CIDAS is a 10-year acquisition program of record, intended to improve de¬contamination processes associated with chemical, bi¬ological, and non-traditional warfare agents. CIDAS is also part of a United Kingdom program to provide chemical detection capability to NATO partner mili¬taries.
The STTR led to several commercial products now offered by FLIR Systems, Inc.—a leading security technology corporation in the Defense and Homeland Security markets. The Agentase Chemical Agent De¬tection (CAD) Kit offers the chemical detection capa¬bility in the pen-like form factor, and FLIR Systems has the spray-based formulation as Agentase C2 Chem¬ical Agent Disclosure Spray (ADS). FLIR Systems also presents ADS in a handheld half-liter sprayer for spot checks, a backpack application for increased range of spraying, and a cart-based sprayer for screening over large areas, such as vehicles and terrain. FLIR Systems also offers training versions of these products. They’re identical in operation but use a non-toxic simulant to trigger a response.
FLIR has further expanded the tech¬nology to include the detection of toxic industrial chemicals. They’ve developed a real-time monitor that looks for contaminants in drink¬ing water, and future commercial focus will be on the agricultural and food processing industries, supporting food quality through an emphasis on pesticide and oth¬er contaminant detection.
Thanks to the STTR program, Agentase was able to partner with Battelle Memorial Institute, a global science and technology research and development or¬ganization, to grow their enzyme-polymer biosensor technology into a mature chemical-sensing solution. In 2003, the technology won the Army’s Greatest Inven¬tion Award. By 2015, the advanced chemical warfare agent detection capability had been fielded throughout DoD, DHS, and the FBI. Domestic economic activi¬ty also resulted. Agentase’s initial successes under the STTR program led to their purchase by ICx Technolo¬gies in 2006. ICx was subsequently purchased by FLIR Systems in 2010 for $268 million.
Through the STTR program, a small business has changed our nation’s ability to respond to chemical at¬tacks. Dr. Stephen Lee, chief scientist at ARL’s Army Research Office, fostered the first phases of the STTR with Agentase, and has been an advocate for the technology ever since, “Without STTR we’d never have the ability to field this capability, period,” he said.