Boston startup dives into marijuana industry with high-tech sensor to weed out impurities
By Dan Adams GLOBE STAFF JULY 16, 2017
The compact, high-tech chemical sensors made by the Boston startup 908 Devices are used by emergency responders to scan for toxins after industrial accidents, and by researchers in the pharmaceutical and energy industries to profile the composition of drugs and petroleum products.
Now, the firm has unveiled a new sensor intended to give it a foothold in a less conventional but fast-growing industry: commercial marijuana.
The sensor, dubbed the G908, is a countertop “push-button” mass spectrometer designed to identify cannabis compounds. Its designers say the device approaches the accuracy of traditional “gold standard” lab equipment but is far smaller, faster, cheaper, and easier to use.
The company hopes to sell hundreds of the machines to marijuana labs, cultivators, and processors. Executives at 908 Devices, which has raised nearly $50 million in funding since its founding in 2014, believe the US market for marijuana testing equipment could soon reach a half-billion dollars.
“We see cannabis as a growing part of the life-sciences market,” chief executive Kevin Knopp said. “If this is a legal product being brought to market, we need to be able to tell whether the potency and levels of solvents are within the requirements.”
In states where the drug is legal, regulators typically require commercially grown marijuana to be tested in professional labs for potency and contaminants such as pesticides and mold before it can be sold. 908 Devices is marketing its sensor to such labs, noting that its speed means technicians can test more samples each day.
“It cuts 80 percent off of the usual analysis time,” said Chris Hudalla, founder of ProVerde Laboratories, a lab in Milford that analyzes marijuana for dispensaries and which has been evaluating the G908. “That’s hugely advantageous because it can increase our throughput.”
However, he added, the machine isn’t quite sensitive enough to meet some state standards.
The company is also betting the device will appeal to pot farmers. It could help them detect problems in the plants and cultivate marijuana with precise blends of psychoactive compounds without waiting days for results from an off-site lab.
“If you have cultivation staff waiting around to go to the next step, you don’t want to say, ‘Come back in three days when the testing will be done,’ ” Hudalla said. “This lets you get an answer in a few minutes and move on.”
Working from a small sample of marijuana flower, the G908 can measure a plant’s potency and chemical profile. It can also test pot concentrates to ensure there are no residual traces of potentially harmful solvents some processors use to extract the plant’s primary psychoactive compound, THC.
The typical testing equipment currently used is about the size of a large basement freezer, costs up to $600,000, and can take 30 minutes or longer to return a result. The toaster-oven-sized G908, on the other hand, weighs just 28 pounds, costs under $100,000, and can spit out an analysis in as little as five minutes, the company said.
The breakthrough at its heart is a series of miniaturized “molecular traps,” which, unlike older technology that requires power-hungry air pumps to create a vacuum, can detect marijuana chemicals in a tube kept just below normal outdoor air pressure.
Hudalla noted that the G908 arrives amid soaring commercial and scientific interest in how different marijuana strains affect the mind and body.
Researchers have known for decades that pot’s distinctive high is caused primarily by THC, and that related ‘‘cannabinoid’’ chemicals in the plant may have medicinal benefits. But more recent studies suggest another class of marijuana compounds called terpenes — long assumed to be simply aromatics that imparted “flavors” but had little psychoactive effect — may actually play a key role in how users experience the drug, and account for the differing subjective effects of various strains.
Hudalla believes terpene-detecting devices like the G908 will become standard fixtures in cannabis-growing facilities. In part, that’s because a number of states may soon require terpene tests on commercially grown marijuana. But more important, Hudalla predicted, increasingly sophisticated pot consumers will come to prefer strains with particular terpene profiles, just as craft beer fanatics obsess over hops.
“Different physiological effects, like making you happy or sleepy or giving you dry mouth, are often terpene-related, not cannabinoid-related,” Hudalla said. “You’ll have product lines for connoisseurs who want specific terpenes.”
This article originally appeared in the Boston Globe.