American Company Thorlabs Acquires Skolkovo Resident Coda Devices

The police of Albuquerque, New Mexico has recently gained an opportunity to detect heroin without even opening suspected substance containers. This has made its anti-drug trafficking efforts more efficient and also protected police officers from being exposed to possible life-threatening substances. 

This has become possible thanks to the application of a drug analysis system designed by Coda Devices, a resident of the Skolkovo Foundation that was recently acquired by Thorlabs, an American manufacturer of optical equipment. The parties have not disclosed the financial details of the deal.

In addition to the detection of prohibited substances by law enforcement agencies, Coda Devices' system can be used in the pharmaceutical, chemical, and food manufacturing industries. 

“We are very excited to welcome the Coda team to Thorlabs and to gain their Raman spectroscopy expertise,” said Verena Mackowiak, Managing Product Engineer of Thorlabs’ Spectroscopy Technology Team in the company's press release. “In the coming weeks and months, we look forward to working together to expand the market reach of the coded-aperture Raman spectroscopy technique.” 

According to Thorlabs, Coda’s technology can identify the relative concentrations of up to four substances (powders, liquids, gels, or solids) out of a current library of 3,600 known signatures (prescription and illegal substances, polymers, plastics, minerals, and organic/inorganic compounds) in less than 15 seconds. The analysis can be performed through any transparent material (e.g., baggies, blisters, glass ampoules, etc.), thereby eliminating the need to break into the initial packaging, which has the benefit of preventing contact with potentially deadly substances and allows the technology to be employed for inline quality control. 

“To put it briefly, Coda Devices creates chemical identification systems,” says CEO Anatoly Konukhov. “Unlike other existing solutions on the market, our system is based on the patented coded- aperture technology developed at Duke University in North Carolina.”

Prior to the deal with Thorlabs, Coda Devices was the exclusive user of Duke University's license, which allowed a team of 13 people to successfully compete with large companies. There are more than 500 manufacturers of Raman-based solutions worldwide. Many of them are operating out of China.

Looking at the flame of a candle with the sun in the background

Why are the advantages provided by Coda Devices are better seen in drug enforcement? There are both social and technological reasons for that.

According to data presented at the recent BIO World Congress in Philadelphia, the consumption of opioids in the United States has become a real epidemic. More Americans die from drug overdoses each year than the number of American lives lost in the entirety of the Vietnam War.

New Mexico is a primary corridor for the cartels to ship drugs nationwide, says the author of “The Cartels Next Door,”  an investigative report published by Albuquerque Journal. From Albuquerque the heroin traffic flows to New York and then to Europe.  The Sinaloa Cartel alone controls somewhere between 40 and 60 percent of illegal drugs used in the United States.

That is why the Albuquerque Police Department became a customer of Coda Devices. Moreover, the New Mexico police supervised the development of a Coda portable drug analysis laboratory and tested it. The device proved to be convenient for the end user, it worked quickly and was much cheaper than similar products.

“At the time of the introduction of the Coda Devices mobile laboratory, cocaine was the main drug in America,” says Anatoly Konukhov. “However, since about 2016, heroin has been appearing more and more in the statistics of overdose deaths. Unlike cocaine, which is fairly easy to detect, street heroin is not detectable by a regular Raman spectrometer.”

“When affected by laser, the heroin begins to glow, and this fluorescent light clogs the useful spectrum,” says Konukhov. “And it's like trying to look at the flame of a candle with the sun in the background”.

This technological problem perplexed even large spectrometer manufacturers – and at the very moment when the problem started to escalate.

Technology challenge

In early 2017, engineers at Coda Devices designed algorithms that helped solve the problem. However, changes on the illegal opioid market brought new challenges. Drug addicts are dying more often not from the heroin itself but from substances added into it, such as fentanyl and carfentanyl. The latter is an extremely powerful opioid used by veterinarians for very large animals such as elephants.

The law enforcement authorities in the United States even issued an alert on these opioids declaring the dangerous for law enforcement, public health workers and first responders. Law enforcement officers were instructed not to field test suspected packages, but take them directly to laboratories. 

This challenge presented a market opportunity for Coda Devices, because right from the outset the company focused on designing a solution that would make opening suspected packages unnecessary. 

“By the end of 2017, we had prepared a beta version of our technology and started testing it. The following year we made several test measurements in which American police officers took part. Because they participated in the process, they trusted our technology.”

As a result, the Albuquerque Police Department immediately purchased this solution. Soon Coda gained recognition outside of New Mexico. In April 2018, a local Colorado television station showed an interview with a police lieutenant from Montrose County who shared his experience of using the technology: “The Coda device allows you to check a suspicious substance without opening the package, and thereby without endangering civilians and law enforcement officers.”

An incredibly cool product

When making the decision to purchase Coda Devices, executives at Thorlabs undoubtedly realized that the newly acquired technology has a much wider range of application than just drug detection.

“I believe that Coda Devices has a very cool technology that sets our company apart from competitors,” says Anatoly Konukhov. “Thorlabs is very well versed in optics, photonics, and manufacturing. If we combine it all together – technology, mathematics, our algorithm – with the experience of Thorlabs, I believe we will get an incredibly cool product that will help Thorlabs stand out in the spectrometer market. ”

Another area of application for Coda Devices in the USA is the control of prescription drugs.  

The company's technology enables the identification of prescription drugs based on a library of several thousand signatures. Currently, some 50 devices using the Coda Devices technology are being used by the FDA Controlled Substance Staff. Moreover, the technology is effective in those frequent cases when criminals try to smuggle pills containing narcotics under the guise of harmless drugs.

In general, as Anatoly Konukhov emphasizes, the Coda Devices technology is applicable in a fairly wide range of areas, for example, in the chemical and polymer industries. The fluorescence suppression technology opens new opportunities for Raman spectrometry in the food industry. For example, various components can be identified in baby foods. This applies to ingredients at all stages of the manufacturing process as well as to the final product. 

In pharmaceutical manufacturing, Raman spectrometers from Coda Devices help identify counterfeited and smuggled medicine. 

In total, more than 250 devices in 10 countries operate on the Coda Devices platform. In addition to the United States, the company has customers in Russia, China and South Korea.


21 august 2019