[THE INVESTOR] For most people, recognizing the slightest differences between objects that look similar is difficult. This is especially true for pills, which can easily look the same, even to professional pharmacists.
Targeting this problem, one tech startup in South Korea has set out to introduce a new portable device that can identify pills, as well as other substances, based on the unique but consistent way different materials react to light.
Stratio was founded in January 2013 by four Stanford University engineers with an ambition to bring infrared imaging technology to the mass market.
Four years in, the firm has introduced a handheld, portable spectrometer that uses short-wave infrared imaging sensors to identify the authenticity of pills.
In physics, every substance shows a unique but consistent reaction when light hits it. Based on this principle, one substance can be differentiated from another, similar to how humans can be identified by their unique fingerprints.
Stratio’s portable device -- dubbed Linksquare -- looks at this “spectral fingerprint” to determine whether an object is genuine or not.
To work the device, one can grasp it like a pen and place the tip against the pill. After pressing a “scan” button on a mobile app connected to the device, the results of the analysis are available in seconds.
Currently, LinkSquare can identify Viagra -- Pfizer’s famous blue pill for erectile dysfunction. While that is a valuable technology, Stratio said it has a bigger vision -- distinguishing counterfeit anti-malarial medication that can potentially cost lives.
Stratio CEO Lee Jae-hyung. Park Hyun-koo/The Investor
“Distinguishing Viagra pills is only the first step, a ‘demo’ to introduce our technology to the market and make an impression,” Stratio’s CEO and co-founder Lee Jae-hyung told The Korea Herald.
“Though it will take time, we’re interested in a more serious problem of identifying fake anti-malarial drugs which cause preventable deaths in underdeveloped countries,” he said, noting that Stratio is already in talks over deploying its technology to aid bodies under the World Health Organization.
Looking ahead, the implications of Stratio’s device are slated to go far beyond identifying prescription meds. The firm is currently working with partners to identify fake currency based on the type of ink printed, as well as determining the freshness of food based on their properties, said the 38-year-old CEO.
As for its business outlook, the startup believes its formula for success lies in the exclusivity of its technology combined with easy accessibility and low pricing.
“We’ve built a portable spectrometer with high analytical accuracy, deployed the needed machine learning algorithms and seamlessly linked it to a simple mobile app,” said Lee, who holds a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Stanford with an expertise in semiconductors an microfabrication.
“What we’ve done is to take a very complex technology and transform it into an easy, simple device for users. And it’s something that is not easy to copy,” he said.
Affordability is another major selling point for Stratio. Short wave infrared imaging equipment -- currently used for purposes such as sorting out plastics and analyzing substances inside labs -- are bulky and cost millions of dollars.
The Korean startup is aiming to introduce this same, expensive technology via its portable device designed for easy use in the real world at under $1,000, according to the Stratio CEO.
As for commercialization, Stratio recently launched LinkSquare on Kickstarter, but only in the form of a “software developer kit” for app developers interested in building apps using the startup’s device.
It is aiming to introduce LinkSquare and its paired mobile app to regular consumers within the first half of 2018, Lee said.
Based in both Seoul and the US, Stratio has raised around $5 million in total so far, including investment from Korean chipmaker SK hynix and government funding from both Korea and the US, it said.
By Sohn Ji-young/The Korea Herald (firstname.lastname@example.org)