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Miniaturising devices to fit on your palm

Milka Lahnalammi-Vesivalo | 31.12.2014

​Jarkko Antila is the CEO of Spectral Engines, manufacturer of smart spectrometers. His journey began with space technology studies at Otaniemi.

Spectral Engines, manufacturer of smart spectral sensors, detached itself as a VTT spin-off company in summer 2014. 

– All materials have a spectral fingerprint by which they can be identified. Using our technology, the massive laboratory equipment needed to measure them can be miniaturised to hand-held size, says Jarkko Antila, CEO of the company.

The identification of the spectral fingerprint of materials is based on the identification of the light wavelengths the material reflects. In Spectral­ Engines’ devices, a small IR range filter­ and a detector replace the traditional spectro­meter. This combination allows implementation of a smart spectral sensor, where a specific setting­ can be used to select a certain wavelength of light from all light introduced through a filter.

– The wavelengths to be measured are selected according to the material under examination by using a software attached to the device. In other words, the user of the device does not need to be familiar with spectrometry, explains Antila.


A thousand times smaller and a hundred times cheaper

Spectral sensors can be used, for example, for the study of the composition of foodstuffs, paper or air-fuel mixture during the manufacturing process. The advantages of the device include the cost-effective price and small size.

– For example, in food industry, an entire product line could be equipped with our devices at the same price you usually pay for a single traditional device, Antila points out.

According to Antila, as the production ­volumes increase, the sensor price will eventually be about a hundred times lower and the size about a thousand times smaller compared to laboratory equipment. The secret is that due to an adjustable filter, light can be steered at a single point, which facilitates the use of a cost-effective single-point IR detector, and therefore the device does not need complex cooling or optics increasing its size. In addition, it is easier to make the device sturdy and durable.

At the moment, the production volumes are still rather small, but the goal is to attract clients who would order thousands of devices a year. Accordingly, from the very beginning, all production has been made easy to scale upwards.


Aiming at growth

Spectral Engines orders the parts for the device from subcontractors and focuses itself on the development, manufacturing, and software. From the very beginning, the small company has had the idea of concentrating its forces on the aspects of production where its strengths lie, and buying the rest from subcontractors.

– We aim at a turnover counted in tens of millions. We are in the process of building a global company.

Currently, there are four founding members operating at Spectral Engines with a VTT background, and one application engineer hired from outside VTT. Jarkko Antila is responsible for the company operations in general as the CEO, Janne Suhonen is responsible for marketing, sales and business development, Uula Kantojärvi for technological development and Jussi Mäkynen for systems engineering. 

The first hired employee Matti Tammi started this autumn as applications developer at ­customer interface and, in addition, Joachim Mannhardt­ acts as applications and business developer in Germany. As the production volumes increase, the company also aims to hire new personnel for production.


From space technology to the Åland Islands

Jarkko Antila used to study space technology at Helsinki University of Technology at Otaniemi just because it sounded interesting to him. At the end of the ’90s he saw a notice on the institution’s notice board, announcing that a space technology group at VTT was seeking a summer employee, but the application period had already ended. Antila decided to send an e-mail concerning the position anyway, and ended up at VTT.

– After that work started to steer my studies. Eventually, I worked at VTT as research scientist for three years and developed sensor solutions.

In one of the projects, a client approached Antila and asked him to become a product development manager at INFICON in the Åland Islands. Jarkko spent a total of three years on this job, after which he returned to VTT for four years as team leader, until he began to focus on giving rise to Spectral Engines only.


Pocket size device is born

VTT developed its spectrometry know-how already at the turn of the 21st century with Vaisala’s air quality sensors, and assignments made for the European Space Agency (ESA). In 2008, VTT started to develop fuel sensors for Continental, and, at the same time, new inventions related to microelectromechanical systems, or MEMS chip structures, were made. This opened up new development opportunities.

– We worked in close collaboration with chip developers. We saw that fair departments always had huge demo gadgets on display, and we, on the other hand, decided to make an easy-to-use pocket-size device that can be hooked up to a computer by USB, Antila says. 

This philosophy has turned out hugely successful at VTT, since it has been easy for other people than experts alone to slip the demo device in their pocket and demonstrate it to customers at fairs and meetings.

The first Spectral Engines products were also developed on the same basis.


From a VTT invention to a product

Because VTT was unable to take the well-begun R&D any further and proceed to applications, and, on the other hand, because the invention was not sufficiently ready for companies, the idea of the establishment of Spectral Engines came about. At the end of 2012, VTT applied for Tekes TUTL funding for the purpose of ­commercialising the technology.

– We were granted a significant amount of funding and we were thus able to use sufficient­ amount of time for market research alongside technology development. We were able to establish­ a company concept and a product prototype to be piloted with clients.

When Spectral Engines started its operation in June, it already had clients who had tested the device and given feedback on it.

Next, Spectral Engines is aiming at the ­German and US markets. In Finland, Antila hopes to have more co-operation with other actors within the field.

– Different companies and business sectors have different operating methods. For example, joint projects managed by VTT help to build up co-operation, Antila says.



 

 

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