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U.S.-based company positioned to become a global ‘player’ in explosives trace detection

QS-B220 from
Implant Sciences

Since 9/11/01, two international companies -- Smiths Detection, of the UK, and Morpho Detection, of France -- have largely dominated the explosive trace detection business, but now a relatively small U.S.-based company, Implant Sciences Corp., headquartered in Wilmington, MA, has taken many of the management, technical and financial steps it believes are necessary to position itself to compete successfully in this fast-growing security niche.

Implant Sciences was established in 1984, when its founders conceived of a method to implant radioactive seeds in humans for the treatment of breast and prostate cancer -- hence the name Implant Sciences. Over the next two decades, however, it behaved like a small business innovation research (SBIR) company, as it sought to win a wide range of small research contracts from U.S. Government agencies by coming up with bright ideas to address a variety of technical requirements spelled out in SBIR solicitations.   . “As such, the Company was focused on fundamental science across a wide area of topics vs. being focused on excellence in product development in a specific industry, such as explosive trace detection for homeland security,” explained Glenn Bolduc, the current CEO at Implant Sciences, who took the reins of the Company at the end of 2008.

In its early years, the Company had done some brilliant technical research -- some of it based on the extraordinary brainpower of a handful of Russian scientists led by the entrepreneurs who founded the Company -- but it didn’t focus its energies in any one specific area, invest in a talented management team, find steadfast financial backers or develop strong and deep relationships with its prospective U.S. Government customers.

All that has now changed.

Implant Sciences has now sold off all of its extraneous business lines, except its explosive trace detection line; hired an impressive roster of top-tier executives and experienced operational managers; and launched an all-out effort to win the trust and confidence of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). It has focused particular attention on one unit within TSA known as the Transportation Security Laboratory (TSL), based in Atlantic City, NJ, which establishes technical requirements for the nation’s security screening equipment, tests candidate systems, and maintains a qualified products list for those products and systems that can meet its demanding standards.

“Since January 1, 2009, we’ve been a ‘pure play’ homeland security focused business,” Bolduc told Government Security News during an exclusive, all-day visit last month at the Company’s headquarters, just north of Boston. It has concentrated its attention on the development, manufacturing and marketing of two versions of its unique explosive trace detection technology -- a handheld version, called the QS-H150, which resembles a “Dust Buster” and sells for about $30,000 a unit; and a newer benchtop version, known as the QS-B220, which looks like a desktop computer with a built-in monitor, has a slot into which a swab can be inserted for rapid analysis, and sells for about $48,000 each.

The Company has become so focused on explosive trace detection that it is seriously contemplating changing its corporate name -- to get away from the word “Implant,” which no longer makes much sense. Bolduc told GSN that the Company has compiled a list of potential new names, whittled that list down to two finalists, and might make the switch in the foreseeable future.

Bolduc and his management team are convinced that the future for explosive trace detection is growing brighter day-by-day. They point to new applications for this technology in schools (where the equipment can be used to detect drugs carried on students’ bodies or hidden in their lockers) and in prisons (where the detection gear is particularly helpful in spotting drugs being smuggled into facilities by friends and relatives who are visiting inmates.)

But the most promising application for trace detection remains the war on terrorism, in which extremists continue to attempt to conceal explosives on transportation systems or in areas where people tend to congregate. In such scenarios, metal detection is becoming less useful, while explosive detection is becoming increasingly more important.

“Bad guys don’t use bombs from the ‘Acme Bomb Company’,” said Bolduc. “They’ve moved away from using metal bombs.” Instead, they’re assembling fairly ingenious devices (bombs) that use explosives, such as PETN, but do not have detectable metal parts.

He pointed to the first “underwear” bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who had planned to detonate a bomb while aboard a Northwest Airlines flight bound for Detroit on Christmas in 2009, or the thwarted effort to conceal explosives hidden inside a printer cartridge that originated in Yemen in October 2010, and was supposed to be transported by air to a Jewish synagogue in Chicago, or the most recent “underwear” plot in which an updated version of a non-metallic bomb (supposedly with an improved detonator) was intercepted when a Saudi double-agent turned in the lethal underwear bomb to Western-oriented authorities. In all of these threats, the explosive was non-metallic and therefore not detectable by X-ray or metal detection machines.