Magnitude Instruments: Innovating the Art of Transient Spectroscopy

August 28, 2020

When doctoral candidate Eric Kennehan had to spend three weeks in the lab making spectroscopic measurements around the clock, “grumpy and sleep deprived,” he had no idea that he was on the verge of creating something groundbreaking. 

“I was working on PhD in Chemistry and my advisor wanted me to perform some measurements for my dissertation,” he remembers. “The spectrometers that I had access to were so slow, and poorly performing that I couldn’t make the majority of the measurements that my advisor wanted, certainly not within a reasonable amount of time. The instruments just weren’t good enough.”

Frustrated with the limitations, Kennehan and some of his fellow researchers spent time making improvements to the instruments. He vividly remembers the moment when they retook the measurements that were attempted earlier and were shocked at how good –  and fast –  the results were. “It stands out as one of the greatest moments of my graduate work,” he says. 

He and his advisor quickly realized that the advancements were groundbreaking in the world of spectroscopy and proceeded to patent the technology.  With support from Invent Penn State, the Penn State Research Foundation and Penn State’s Office of Technology Management they were introduced to the prospect of starting a company and selling the new device. 

“I had no idea where to begin,” Kennehan says. Fortunately for him, Ben Franklin TechCelerator did. But before we look at their journey from concept to company, let’s look at what they created.

Like time-lapse photography for the scientific world

The device that Kennehan and his team created is a high-sensitivity, low-noise transient absorption spectrometer. 

Simply put, it’s like those time lapse images that MythBusters used to use to measure velocity or distance, but in this case, it is molecular events that happen orders of magnitude faster than high speed cameras can capture. Additionally, the instrument is able to determine the chemical species present in a sample. By using this high-sensitivity, low-noise transient absorption spectrometer, you are able to put images together to create a movie of events that occur on the molecular level. 

Magnitude Instruments’ spectrometers are faster and more sensitive than any spectrometers have been in the past, but that isn’t the only thing that sets them apart. 

It is a compact product that is the first ever turnkey instrument of its kind. “You can literally set it on your kitchen table and start using it –  and still have room to sit down and eat dinner at the table,” Kennehan says. Before their devices were invented, previous versions took up entire rooms, and had to be run by highly skilled (and highly trained) individuals. “This instrument is not only state-of-the-art and compact, but it’s more than 100 times more sensitive than any of the other spectrometers on the market. It is able to make measurements in minutes that used to take hours. Furthermore, the instrument has significant cost savings when compared to the previous instruments that were available. When we say it’s better, faster, cheaper, easier, and smaller, we mean it.”

Research and industry benefit from precision spectrometry

Kennehan says two major sectors will benefit from their innovation. “The first is the research sector,” he says. “Universities and national research labs have been using this kind of tool for a long time, but nothing with such unprecedented performance or ease of use. The second sector is industry. Many corporations want to do research for new materials or new products, or want to do quality control or process monitoring, but did not have access to robust, turnkey systems like this that their staff could use.” 

Moving from concept to company

When Penn State’s Office of Technology Management, and members of the Penn State Research Foundation met with Kennehan and his co-inventors, they mentioned that the TechCelerator would be a great place to start if they were interested in pursuing a business. 

The 10-week TechCelerator course, along with vital help from their entrepreneurial coaches Bob Dornich and Scott Johnson, helped to direct them on how they could commercialize their spectrometer.

As the process sped from patenting to becoming a company, Kennehan soon became CEO of the new company, and his co-inventors became his business partners. John Asbury, his former advisor, serves as Magni­tude Instruments Chief Scientific Offic­er and co-inventor Christopher Grieco, who is currently a post-doctoral researcher at Ohio State University, serves as Magni­tude Instruments Software Architect. Recently, a product development team was added to the team, along with advisers with significant business experience to “keep Magnitude Instruments moving in the right direction at a steady pace,” Kennehan said. 

Innovation Park offers valuable resources

The company has set up shop in Innovation Park, which Kennehan says is the perfect location for them as they grow. “It’s close to all the people who have helped us launch,” he says. “Ben Franklin’s Entrepreneur in Residence Scott Johnson, TechCelerator entrepreneur coach Bob Dornich, Associate Director of the Office of Entrepreneurship and Commercialization Jim Pietropaolo and so many others, especially with Ben Franklin have helped us in this journey. Having resources so close has been invaluable.”

Magnitude Instruments first sale was shipped to the University of Pennsylvania in August 2019, and in December 2019, their second unit was shipped to University of California, Riverside. “Spectrometers are quite expensive, and most of our clients have to apply for grants before they purchase them, so the sales cycle can often take years in our industry,” Kennehan says. 

In the meantime, they continue to build their company and delivering state-of-the-art transient spectrometers that are better, faster, cheaper, smaller, and easier to use than ever before.

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