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South Korean startup lasers in on food safety

The Wave Talk claims to offer quicker, cheaper bacteria detection

In a demonstration, tap water is injected with E. coli bacteria and fed into The Wave Inspection Sensor system. (Photo by Elaine Ramirez)

SEOUL -- South Korean startup The Wave Talk says it can improve food safety by commercializing a sensor system that can be used on production lines to detect and remove contaminated liquids.

Food poisoning is potentially fatal, especially for infants and young children, pregnant women, the elderly, and people with chronic illnesses or weakened immune systems. It kills about 3,000 people a year in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a U.S. health protection agency. Food recalls cost the U.S. up to $93.2 billion a year, according to a 2015 study at Ohio State University.

Testing for microorganisms is expensive, complicated and time-consuming. But The Wave Talk has developed a method that takes seconds to complete, does not require specialist staff, and can be installed on food, cosmetics or pharmaceutical production lines.

"Besides food safety, TWT's technology could be implemented in the smart home industry, as the system to monitor contamination can be made in small sizes. Also, it could be implemented in the health care industry to check contamination in medical devices," said Woo Deog-hyun, manager of the intelligence business division of Nongshim Engineering, a unit of Nongshim, a South Korean food and beverage conglomerate.

Nongshim, which is considering joint projects and sales development with the startup, plans to install the technology at one of its bottled water factories by the end of the year. TWT said it has also signed initial deals with several other large South Korean companies in the pharmaceutical, bottled water, beer, beverage and humidifier industries, including Lotte, CJ CheilJedangLG Electronics and SK Hynix.

As explained by The Wave Talk Chief Technology Officer Kim Nam-kyun, a red light goes off when the company’s machine detects the presence of bacteria in liquids under monitoring. (Photo by Elaine Ramirez)

"Scientifically and objectively quantifying bacterial contamination has always been the number one problem that needs to be solved in the food industry," Woo said. "Nongshim Engineering has very high hopes that [the TWT technology] will bring about significant changes in food safety," he added. "The fact that it is so easy to implement in the industrial field is one of the very attractive features."

Founded by researchers from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, The Wave Talk has raised $2 million from domestic investors, including Naver, an internet services provider, Estechpharma, a pharmaceutical company, and Bluepoint Partners, an advanced technology venture capital firm. The company has also received some government funding.

Its product, dubbed The Wave Inspection Sensor, uses a technology called time reversal signal processing to shoot a laser beam through a liquid and measure the angle of its reflection. If the light reflects along the same pathway, the substance is pure. But if bacteria are present, they will interfere with the light, which will return at a different angle. For now, only homogeneous liquids -- those with a uniform structure -- can be tested. Fruit particles in juice, for example, would interfere with the laser beam.

Cutting costs

While TWT said the technology will not replace the need for laboratory scientists, it said it will help to reduce machinery, labor and food recall costs. Kim Young-dug, chief executive, said the technology is more affordable than other systems because the sensors can be installed directly onto production lines, avoiding the need for samples to be taken to laboratories.

The system also scans all passing liquid, not just samples, and relays the data to a smartphone app for real-time monitoring by managers. "This is not about cost, this is about human life," Kim said.

The company has developed the technology as an add-on device to existing systems, focusing on water purification. The device functions as a "jacket" that can be placed on a pipeline. When a sensor detects bacteria, it switches a valve, flushing out the contaminated liquid through a different pipe. Normal flow is resumed when the liquid is pure.

The traditional process for bacteria detection is culturing, invented by 19th century microbiologist Louis Pasteur, which determines from a sample of liquid diluted with water whether bacteria colonies grow after 48 hours. Polymerase chain reaction, developed by Nobel laureate biochemist Kary Mullis in 1984, is quicker, but still requires about four hours, Kim said.

There have been other developments in laser-based bacteria detection, albeit for different applications. A team at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem uses lasers to observe bacterial cells' fluorescence using a portable nanochip, but the downsides are that it requires a high-sensitivity sensor and long exposure time, cannot be adapted for fast-running liquids, and tests samples rather than production volumes, The Wave Talk's developers said. Researchers at the University of Newcastle, Australia, are using lasers to detect bacteria in joint fluids in the body within 20 minutes.

Park Yong-keun, scientific adviser to The Wave Talk, worked on the TWIS technology during his doctoral studies at Harvard Medical School, seeking to put it to practical use. At KAIST, he and a team adapted the technology for use in medical optics, using an expensive laser device in the lab to detect bacteria more cost-effectively, Kim said.

Complex solids

The Wave Talk launched in 2016 with the aim of detecting bacteria in organic matter such as raw chicken breasts, intending to develop refrigerator sensors for home use. But the startup decided to focus on the pure liquid market because of the complexities involved in testing organic solids, which change consistency constantly.

Chang Jee-hyun, principal at investor Bluepoint Partners, said the firm sees many applicable areas for the technology outside the food market, including improving the accuracy of health care diagnoses and detecting pores in semiconductors. The technology could also be used in apartment complexes, where water tanks are not as strictly monitored as city water treatment plants, TWT said.

The Wave Talk's prototype smartphone accessory includes a laser and will enable users to scan liquids for bacteria contamination on the go. (Photo by Elaine Ramirez)

The Wave Talk has also developed a prototype for a customer-friendly handheld device, to be commercialized next year. This includes a laser that attaches to a smartphone and uses its camera to scan liquid samples. The company hopes it could be used in homes, or by tourists, factory managers and public safety officials.

After commercializing its liquid scanners, the company plans to work on the more difficult task of scanning solid objects -- such as meat -- for bacteria, said Chief Technology Officer Kim Nam-kyun. Later, it hopes to use light analysis to understand microbiomes, or gut bacteria, to help predict diseases in individuals.

"Ultimately, this technology will enable anyone to detect bacteria anywhere, anytime, via a mobile phone," said CEO Kim Young-dug.

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