Shining a Light on COVID-19 Detection

Wednesday, June 10, 2020
An artist rendering of coronavirus.

TUCSON, Ariz. – In today’s world, the ability to detect COVID-19 has become essential. As the world works diligently to develop new tests and methods for such detection, one technology invented at the University of Arizona is on its way to having real impact.


The spectrometer – about the size of a file box – is 94 to 99 percent accurate in analyzing the chemical makeup of samples and requires minimal training to operate. Image credit: Botanisol Analytics.

UArizona startup Botanisol Analytics, in collaboration with other partners, has won a $1.5 million contract to build systems for the Air Force Research Laboratory. With additional discretionary funding, the startup anticipates being able to field COVID-19 screeners this fall.

Imagine a small, portable machine about the size of a file box. In that machine is a laser with sensors that can instantly analyze the chemical makeup of a sample without the use of reagents.

The system – which was invented by UArizona professor Tom Milster of the James C. Wyant College of Optical Sciences, along with co-inventors Pramod Khulbe and Barry Gelernt – uses the smallest wavelengths of light possible that will transmit through air at normal temperatures and pressures.  

Because the size of the wavelength determines the accuracy of the machine, the system is between 2,000 and 6,000 times more accurate than prior Raman spectrometers. That means better, faster results – even better than Botanisol’s 785 + Surface Enhanced Spectrometer – similar to instruments that have already been shown to detect viruses with 94-99% accuracy. The system can go anywhere with a standard wall outlet and requires minimal training to operate. What’s more, the technique can be 18 times faster and 110 times cheaper than current polymerase chain reaction tests used for detecting viral RNA. 


Tom Milster. Photo: James C. Wyant College of Optical Sciences

“This system is just one example of why we are a world leader in optical sciences, for both the research we do and because of the applicability of that science to real-world challenges,” said Senior Vice President for Research and Innovation Elizabeth “Betsy” Cantwell. “This is what we’re focusing on as an institution: conducting innovative science and creating pathways for it to improve lives.” 

“It is very gratifying to know that this University of Arizona innovation has not only made it to the marketplace, but is poised to make an immediate impact on one of the most serious global crises in modern times,” said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins. “It is an excellent example of how university research serves the people of our community and beyond and can be adapted to address pressing challenges as they arise.” 

In 2018, with the help of Tech Launch Arizona, the commercialization arm of the University of Arizona, Phoenix-based startup Botanisol Analytics licensed the intellectual property for the university’s UV spectrometer and embarked on its mission to “Illuminate the Unknown.”  

“In the midst of this pandemic, everyone is working hard to contribute to a solution,” says Doug Hockstad, assistant vice president of Tech Launch Arizona. “When the cutting-edge research and development taking place in UArizona labs gets applied to make the world a better, safer place, it reaffirms our commitment to moving the results of that research into the public sphere to create impact on society. We couldn’t ask for a better outcome.”

“We can rapidly recalibrate these systems to detect COVID-19 and other pathogens, from the common flu to future, as yet unknown threats. When a new virus is detected anywhere, all machines everywhere can be trained to look for it immediately, by software update,” said David Talenfeld, CEO of Botanisol. “Given discretionary funding, we have the ability to produce up to 100,000 rapid digital disease screeners in 2021.”

“We’ve made a huge amount of progress since we originally licensed the technology in 2018,” he said, noting that the team has raised $1.7 million in investment capital with an additional $1 million offered as a match to any federal funds.

Botanisol Analytics is Talenfeld’s third startup and his second licensing UArizona technology.

This research was, in part, funded by the U.S. government. The views and conclusions contained in the above article are those of the authors and should not be interpreted as representing the official policies, either expressed or implied, of the U.S. government.

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Paul Tumarkin
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