Consumer Physics Begins Shipping SCiO Pocket Molecular Sensors

By Mary Catherine O'Connor

The pocket device is designed to help consumers better understand the products they buy, the foods they eat or the medicines they take.

Consumer Physics, an Israeli startup, is preparing to ship its SCiO pocket molecular sensor to the first of its 13,000 Kickstarter backers. That campaign, which took place a year ago, raised $2.7 million (1,381 percent of its goal).

The SCiO is a handheld near infrared (NIR) spectrometer, which, paired with a smartphone application leveraging a cloud-based database, is designed to enable consumers to better understand the contents of foods and other products they buy.

The sensor can be used to analyze anything (in this case, a plant's leaves) and determine its molecular makeup.

Scientists rely on NIR spectrometers to analyze any physical object—a seashell, a cell, a potato chip or a piece of plastic, for instance. Spectrometers collect light reflected off the molecules comprising an object's surface and convert this into a spectrum. All molecules vibrate in a unique pattern, and the spectrum shows how the reflected light interacts with those molecules. Spectrometers, therefore, create a molecular fingerprint of the material being analyzed, which scientists can then use to determine an object's chemical makeup.

Conventional spectrometers are very large and expensive, and not something a consumer could utilize. However, Consumer Physics' founders felt that a pocket NIR spectrometer could be very handy for consumers, since it would let them do things such as authenticate the contents of the pills they take (or make sure they're taking the right ones), or check the sugar or fat contents of foods they eat, or the ripeness of fresh foods they select at a grocery store.

Consumer Physics is beginning to ship software development kits (SDKs) to the researchers, coders and scientists who backed the project. Each SDK includes one SCiO scanner, one SCiO case (which holds the scanner) and a mini-USB charging cable, as well as access to the SCiO SDK software, which is available both as a smartphone app and as a browser-based Web app. The expectation is that these early backers will use the device to scan materials in order to collect raw data regarding their molecular fingerprints, and then create database entries describing these materials and attributes. If they are able to collect enough database entries about materials that have something in common (fruits or plastics, for example), they could create apps specific to those groups.

"There are some key differences between what users can do and the apps they can access with the development kit, versus our final consumer product," Sharon explains. "With our dev kit unit and software, a scientist, developer or researcher can scan any organic material and determine its molecular fingerprint. That can then be added to a database that that user wants to build out—for example, he or she may be scanning many different types of coffee, and would scan a certain type of bean, add its fingerprint to the database, and add data to that scan noting the type of bean or origin and whatnot. This is for the building out of databases that would then be used as the backbone of specific use cases or apps designed by that developer."

One could imagine an app that lets a consumers scan a piece of plastic packaging and learn its polymer makeup, for instance, in order to determine whether it can be placed in a curbside recycling container.

An app might ask a consumer to select the serving size for a block of cheddar cheese, which she would then scan via the SCiO device.

Dror Sharon, SCiO's CEO, explains that Consumer Physics is creating some applications for specific groups of materials, such as food or drugs, though he expects that outside developers, including these early backers, will create their own apps. The level of specificity that an app will provide to consumers is likely to depend on the type of material for which the app is designed.

For example, a cheese app might ask a consumer to select the serving size for a block of cheddar cheese on her table, and then ask her to scan it via the SCiO device. The app would cross-reference the results with a database of cheeses, and then generate data regarding the nutritional content of the scanned cheese. "What an app does, or the info it gives the user, is dependent on the app itself," Sharon states. "Our apps around food give nutritional information, not identity—partly because, if you are scanning an apple, you already know you have an apple. But our pill-scanning application is all about identifying the pill itself. In fact, it can distinguish between a brand-name aspirin and generic aspirin bought at Walgreens or CVS."

Consumer Physics is shipping approximately 1,300 SDKs, and its engineers are currently starting to migrate from hand-assembly of the scanners to an automatic assembly process. "The automatic assembly line is ramping up these days," Sharon says, "and is planned to be fully operational in August." The company plans to start sending the SCiO to the nearly 12,000 other Kickstarter backers by the end of summer, he adds, once the automated assembly process is in place. The goal is to start selling the SCiO to the general public by this winter. The pre-order price on the Consumer Physics website is currently $250, but the firm has not yet decided what the regular retail price will be.