UW spin-out MarqMetrix provides real-time product quality improvement

By Clare LaFond

Photo of Brian Marquardt, MarqMetrix™

Brian Marquardt of MarqMetrix™ demonstrates the Raman BallProbe™.

What if you could instantly ensure the quality of products across multiple industries – from farm-raised salmon and popular brand-name cookies to pharmaceutical drugs and petrochemicals used in plastics – simply by touching the tip of a “smart” light-sensing probe to the product at hand?

That’s exactly what UW spin-out MarqMetrix™ has developed – and recently licensed through C4C — in the form of optical measurement technology, most notably its use in an optical, or light-sensing, measurement device known as the “Raman BallProbe™.”

Developed by Brian J. Marquardt, Director of the UW Center for Process Analysis and Control (CPAC), senior principal engineer in the Applied Physics Laboratory, and the “Marq” in MarqMetrix™, the probe’s unique spherical sampling lens allows direct and continuous product contact so ongoing sampling can take place without ever having to remove the product from the assembly line. The result? Real-time chemical analysis to ensure things stay on track and nothing goes awry in the production process – whatever the optimal desired product outcome may be.

Here’s how it works: the long silver measuring probe ends in a rounded, spherical tip that projects a laser light into the material being measured. It’s connected to a spectrometer that provides instant feedback (in less than five seconds) via computer screen about the chemical composition of the sample being measured. By measuring the vibrations of molecules, the probe quickly and precisely identifies chemical properties and structures, including complex molecules.

In addition to allowing the producer to achieve the exact level of desired quality in a particular product, the Raman BallProbe™ ensures it happens in the most efficient, cost-saving way possible, which, in turn, makes the production process “smarter” and more profitable. It puts the operator of the product manufacturing process in complete control, Marquardt says, at the earliest possible stage of product creation – to make changes to the production process as soon as correction is needed, before the producer gets too far down the assembly line.

Marquardt engineered this robust, versatile probe to not only work across countless types of materials and products, but to withstand extreme environments – including temperature and pressure — something that uniquely sets it apart from other optical sensors. In 13 separate dives over three years, the MarqMetrix™ Raman BallProbe™ has travelled 3,000 meters (1.8 miles) to the bottom of the ocean floor, where it’s been inserted into the vents of underwater volcanoes reaching temperatures of 662 degrees Fahrenheit. There, in conditions that had proven far too extreme for earlier probe designs, it has provided scientists with instant real-time hydrothermal readings by measuring gases, dissolved metals, sulfates and other chemicals present in the submerged volcanoes.

Photo of the MarqMetrix™ Raman BallProbe™

The MarqMetrix™ Raman BallProbe™ in use

The advantage of the Raman BallProbe™ lies in its spherical-shaped sampling lens. Because of this shape, whatever is being measured – from geothermal gases, to thick cookie batter, to pharmaceutical powders – flows evenly over and around the sphere, allowing the probe to remain immersed in the material it is continually measuring. Whether it’s a geophysicist studying the ocean floor, a drug maker producing over-the-counter medications, or a novice salmon farmer tracking the amount of Omega 3 fatty acids and “pinkness” of salmon – measurements that can be painlessly taken from the skin of live hatchery fish – the Raman BallProbe™ gives accurate, real-time product analysis every time.

“This is about allowing people to engineer quality into a product, rather than testing quality out of it,” Marquardt explains. “To ensure the quality of a product, you don’t want it to be operator-dependent. This device takes operator error out of the equation,” he says, since the probe gives the same reading no matter who’s operating it – expert or beginner.

“It’s producing a chemical picture in real time that people can react to,” Marquardt says. “It removes all the ‘what-ifs.’”

In addition to the Raman BallProbe™ and other optical chemical sensors developed for environmental, biotech, pharma, oil & gas and the food industries, MarqMetrix™ will provide consulting and large multi-variant data analysis for its industry clients. This type of large-scale analysis involves powerful statistical techniques for analyzing data with many variables simultaneously to identify patterns and relationships. In other words, Marquardt and his team are able to study a vast amount of information on a given product and pick out the key data – the data that really matters – from the rest of the “white noise” they’ve uncovered. This will allow them to tell their client companies exactly what they can control – quality-wise – and how to go about doing so.

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The computer displays information about the chemical composition of the sample being measured by the Raman BallProbe™.

“We can tell you specifically which data variables relate to taste, to color, to texture – whatever you’re interested in to gain that particular quality aspect of your product,” Marquardt explains.

For companies to succeed and grow their business, it boils down to “running efficiently, being profitable and making your process smarter at a chemical level,” he says.

As founder and director of the Applied Optical Sensing Laboratory located within the UW Applied Physics Lab, Marquardt has been researching novel fiber-optic sensors for online monitoring of chemical or biological processes for more than 15 years. It’s research that is truly multi-disciplinary, involving chemists, physicists, mathematicians, and engineers. But Marquardt says he often struggled with the reality of not being able to complete team projects beyond the lab – too often, he says, “when the funding’s up, you write a report and it’s done.”

Instead, he says, he wanted to “take the leap of faith and show we were capable of finishing things, of providing solutions to industry partners.” So, during a Seattle Summer Solstice 2012 celebration with two friends that included a golf game and an outing to Frank’s Oyster House & Champagne Parlor, Marquardt began discussing details of his start-up idea. Soon thereafter the three – Marquardt and longtime friends Scott Van Vuren and Jack Donohue, both business-savvy entrepreneurs themselves – became business partners. Together, they took their freshly framed idea for a potential spin-out company to C4C and, eventually, MarqMetrix was born.

MarqMetrix™ recently signed an exclusive licensing agreement with the University of Washington for two patents related to the Raman BallProbe™.

Photo of Brian Marquardt of MarqMetrix™

Brian Marquardt of MarqMetrix™

Located in Seattle’s lower Queen Anne neighborhood, today the company’s custom biochemical research and development lab consists of 4,200 square feet of space, including a data analysis lab for optical, chemical and biological measurement development and testing. The lab also contains substantial resources for the design, development and implementation of optical sensors.

Marquardt says his goal has always been to better understand the optical sampling characteristics of various techniques to improve measurement precision, accuracy and modeling of industrial processes.

Now, with his new UW spin-out company, he is finally positioned to propel his years of academic research out of the lab and into people’s lives, offering real-time customer solutions.

“Basically, this company is about offering expertise in all areas of optical measurement solutions,” Marquardt says. “It’s about positioning ourselves to solve complete problems, from cradle to grave, with an almost ‘set and forget’ type of process analysis.”