Updated: Jun 1
An interview with Merry Smith, Ph.D., Product Manager, C2Sense
C2Sense uses advanced sensing technology that reveal a hidden world of information across applications in gas sensing, rapid diagnostics, and product authentication.
When did the idea for C2Sense, Inc. begin?
C2Sense is a spin-out from the MIT Chemistry Department. Professor Tim Swager (the John D. MacArthur, professor of Chemistry at MIT and co-inventor of C2Sense’s core gas sensing technology) spent years researching chemical sensors, and based on his research, founded C2Sense along with two other co-founders in late 2013. At C2Sense, our aim is to produce sensing technologies for a healthier and safer world. Our core competency is chemistry, specifically in molecular recognition. This means we design molecules with very specific properties that render them excellent sensors. For example, in the case of gas sensing, we’re designing our chemical sensors to react selectively with a target gas. So, you can imagine when our chemical sensors are exposed certain target gases, they react and produce measurable changes in the sensor. We’ve taken chemical sensing a step further by developing a unique system that enables our chemistry to be detected by a smartphone or digitally connected camera. This was developed by C2Sense in the last few years. We call our system Aura™ and is a combination of sensing chemistries, reader hardware, and cloud infrastructure. Now, how does it work? Let me explain.
Let’s start with luminescence. Everybody knows what it is – we’ve all seen those glow-in-the-dark stars on the walls. Luminescence is the chemical property where a molecule can be activated by light. Imagine if you were to heat up a pan on your stove and grab it - you would feel heat. Similarly, instead of heat being the output, in the case of luminescent materials, the output is light. This is why certain materials can glow in the dark! At C2Sense, we have taken a certain class of luminescent materials and found a way for a smartphone to detect that light output. Because the materials require a light input to be activated, we can use the flash from the camera to activate that luminescent material. Then, the incoming energy from the flash is processed and emitted back in an altered form. Custom algorithms read the emitted light. Our software on the phone or digital device reads this information and basically turns the phone into a luminescence detector. Here at C2Sense, we have created a fundamentally new way for the smartphone to interact with the world.
Can you elaborate on some key use cases that your startup provides?
AuthenTags™ targets the problem of counterfeiting, which is one of the largest criminal enterprises in the world. Recently, this issue has spilled over into the consumer space. Whereas before, counterfeiting applied to just luxury goods or currency, it now affects online retail. As a result, counterfeiting has increased dramatically. Online marketplaces with third party sellers are epicenters for counterfeiting. Online pharmacies can quickly be created by bad actors, who create legitimate looking sites and sell fake drugs to unsuspecting customers at discounted rates. When it comes to pharmaceuticals, counterfeiting is extremely dangerous. Not only might a customer get a drug with low therapeutic value (only 50% efficacy, for example), but it might also be toxic. This problem comes with huge health and economic costs.
In order to address this issue, we created AuthenTags to help companies protect consumers from dangerous counterfeits while also protecting companies from brand erosion and loss. If we use invisible luminescent materials as tags, we have a very powerful system that can combat counterfeits. We rely on a “digital handshake” between our tags and software: our emphasis is on detection, not image processing. Consequently, counterfeiters will have an extremely difficult time trying to mimic or reverse engineer our system.
Why is sensing technology so important, and why is it important for consumers to become more aware of this technology?
AuthenTags are relevant to bring up in this context. First of all, this technology not only provides a way to prevent counterfeits, but also enables brand protection, as our tags can interact with its environment. For example, we can create a tag that changes its properties when it is exposed to changes in temperature. This way, you not only have something that can tell you if your insulin is authentic, but also if it is even safe to use. Because insulin requires the cold chain to be effective, if it is stored outside of a specific environment, the product becomes compromised. Therefore, you have this additional layer of security, where it’s not just about brand protection and authenticity, but also quality assurance.
Branching off this, there is also so much information hidden in the molecules that surround us. Molecular materials can tell us about things that are important to our health and safety, and we have to learn to speak their language. This is what we’re doing at C2Sense, and this is what sensing technology offers our planet. Sensing is basically interpreting the hidden information that is available in these molecules. As people become more aware of what information they don't know, I believe they will demand more solutions. For example, before Covid we didn't think about the air around us. We never gave more than a passing thought about what we were inhaling. However, Covid then showed us that we were missing really important information about the health and safety of the air that we were breathing! As more and more information is being made public about air quality, our habits are changing as well (more people wear masks, air purifiers are more common, etc.). I think that the same thing will happen as sensing solutions become more available and pervasive, because everyone wants to remain healthy and safe. This is what sensing can do for people and why it’s so important.
Digital trends: where do you see the future of sensing technology/solutions going?
I definitely see us moving toward that digital-physical bridge. We are fundamentally presenting a new option for the way a smartphone or connected device can interact with the world around it. And consequently, I think you're going to be able to see consumers feel much more empowered to make good choices about what they are purchasing based on information that we can collect from these molecular sensors. In terms of the future of sensing, I think we are still on the early side of the environmental sensing piece of digital-physical bridge. Personally, I'm excited to see how the world evolves as more and more high-quality sensing data comes online.