MIT Sloan alum’s SCiO searches the physical world

Dror Sharon’s Consumer Physics launches hand-held spectrometer to analyze chemical makeup of physical objects

August 5, 2014

Dror Sharon, MBA ’06

Dror Sharon, MBA ’06

The world’s search engines provide an overwhelming amount of instantaneous information, but for Dror Sharon, MBA ’06, and the company he co-founded, it’s just not good enough. Consumer Physics, Inc., based in Tel Aviv, Israel, where Sharon serves as CEO and “Chief Happiness Officer,” recently launched SCiO which promises fast information about the physical things that surround us with specificity the Internet cannot provide.

The size of a flash drive, SCiO is a hand-held optical sensor that can read the chemical makeup of the things around us. Sharon describes information from search engines as “cumbersome” and envisions Scio as a practical tool to extract useful information from objects and materials in real time.

“If you want to know when to water the basil plant growing in your window, there is no way for Google to answer you,” Sharon said. “It can provide an answer to the question ‘How to take care of basil?’ but that is a generic answer. It is not about the actual ever-changing physical world around us.”

SCiO uses near-infrared spectroscopy, technology in use for decades in laboratories. Spectrometers measure and analyze light that has been bounced off objects. Each type of molecule vibrates in a unique way, creating a unique optical signature when interacting with light. Those signatures can be observed and measured. Consumer Physics’ innovation is in shrinking the technology in size and affordability, and in combining it with smartphone applications to compare spectrometer results with online databases for real-time analysis and information.

Some examples of SCiO’s prospective use include determining the fat or sugar content of foods, measuring the hydration level of plants, and tracking changes in substances over time, such as the life cycle of home brewed beer. It can tell the difference between olive oil and sesame oil, and can determine if the can of gas in your garage has degraded before you fill the tank in your lawnmower.

It claims 99 percent accuracy, and becomes stronger with use as the data it draws from online grows. Sharon envisions a community of SCiO users uploading information and creating a global database.

In an age where new tech innovations tout Star Trek levels of “wow” almost daily, SCiO has already proved to be a noteworthy standout. A Kickstarter campaign sought to raise $200,000, and surpassed it by $2.5 million with a tidal wave of international press coverage.

Sharon has almost no advice on how to garner such attention to other entrepreneurs. He credits his team with “flawless execution,” but says that “as with any startup, seven out of ten success factors were out of our hands. We were really lucky.”

“It is like holding on to a rocket ship going from zero to 1,000 miles per hour in two seconds,” he said. “We launched, and the action kept me awake for 48 hours straight. I slept for two hours in the car outside the office that night and went back to monitor the progress with the team.”

“It was an exhilarating experience, especially since we really did not know what would happen once our project manager pressed the ‘publish campaign’ button,” he said.

The big prize for Consumer Physics and SCiO, however, was successfully reaching their true Kickstarter target: building an avid user and application developer community. More than 900 people bought SCiO development kits to help build useful applications and strengthen the data SCiO draws upon to deliver information.

Sharon said that despite potential in the medical fields, SCiO is not being marketed as a medical device. While accurate in identifying compounds that make up one percent of a material or substance, that’s just not accurate enough in applications where trace elements can pose hazards, as with food allergies.

“The potential applications there are still unclear and will require a lot of future work to develop,” Sharon said. “If and when medical grade applications are developed, we feel confident that the impact on our understanding of the human body will be greatly enhanced due to the accessibility and pervasiveness of the device.”

Sharon co-founded Consumer Physics in Israel in 2011 with Damian Goldring, who holds a PhD in electronics and electro optics from Tel Aviv University. Sharon began thinking of developing a sensor company while in an Innovation Teams course at MIT Sloan, looking at a sensor being developed at the MIT Materials Science and Engineering Department. While he felt that technology wasn’t ready for commercialization, the experience has proven invaluable.

“The MIT Sloan experience made a big contribution to my thinking on patent issues, technology commercialization, and provided valuable frameworks,” he said. “My time at MIT had a big impact on my decision to start a company. It’s an amazing hub of technology entrepreneurs. It’s not just exposure, but real interaction with role models deeply engaged in solving tough problems.”