Making the invisible visible.
As a PhD student in the MIT chemistry department, Jan Schnorr focused on sensors, specifically those that can be made ubiquitous. During his studies, he mastered an understanding of how sensors detect various gases and C2Sense was born. C2Sense is a startup technology company that produces gas sensors for a wide variety of applications. Tim Swager, the John D. MacArthur Professor in MIT’s Chemistry Department, was Jan’s PhD advisor at MIT and founded the company with Jan and Eric Keller. Professor Swager is a legend in the industry—he has been working on sensor technology for three decades. Swager decided about 15 years ago to focus on applications in agriculture. Critical to moving forward was finding the right candidate to launch the company and Jan Schnorr was the clear choice. “As a graduate student, Jan had shown exceptional leadership and dedication to the total well-being of my research group,” Swager says. “Technically, Jan was also more multidimensional than other PhD students. Beyond doing synthetic, organic, and materials chemistry, he took it upon himself to develop computer code to automate our sensor research. He has been the ‘rock’ in the development of C2Sense. The fact that we now have a materials/device company with sales in our third year is a testament to his dedication, brilliance, and leadership abilities.”
Jan and Tim built a digital olfactory platform for industrial use cases. The technology allows modified carbon nanotubes to react in highly sensitive ways to specific compounds. Take ripening apples, for example. C2Sense has a sensor product that detects the fruit ripening enzyme ethylene at low parts per million concentrations in the air. Their first paying customer, AgroFresh, is relying on C2Sense to ensure that the millions of pounds of apples they store are preserved correctly. The real-time, highly accurate data stream from C2Sense is something AgroFresh cannot get elsewhere. Their next application will be enabling similar data streams at poultry farms. By placing a sensor in the chicken growout houses, dangerous ammonia levels can be detected and addressed immediately.
Apples and chicken houses are just two use cases of potential thousands. These sensors can be designed to detect almost any compound: ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, or other toxic gases that might harm workers in industry as well as many gases that are relevant for food and agriculture. By making scents known and trackable by software, we can better understand the world around us. This will reduce food waste, improve the safety and health of workers, and so much more.
Jan has always wanted to build something meaningful that would have a positive effect on people’s lives. Digitizing olfactory information excites him because the impact is huge. Pulling in technology from chemistry, material science, physics, and electrical engineering, C2Sense’s cross-disciplinary product will play a big role in dozens of industries in the future. “Tim and I are fortunate that technology, market interest, and big developments like the growing interest in Internet of Things are aligned now and will greatly help build C2Sense,” Jan says.
C2Sense is The Engine’s latest stage company at three-and-a-half years old. During his time at The Engine, Jan plans to ship more products to AgroFresh and conduct quality control testing with them. Coming off a series of successful pilot users, they’re ready to make their first sensor available to more customers. “It’s difficult to build anything without the initial funding and lab resources,” Jan says. “At The Engine, we have that and we can also benefit a lot from the Engine team and the other startups. We share stories and ideas and that’s the reason a program like this and the people within it will succeed.”