A new company making a high-speed, accurate and user-friendly instrument that reveals the molecular structure of proteins, drugs, and other important materials is the latest spinoff from the University of Wisconsin-Madison chemistry department. 

Spectrometers analyze the interaction between a sample and beams of light, and are widely used to identify atoms and molecular structure.  The new device, about the size of a breadbox, will shape short pulses of infrared light produced by a laser, shine it on the sample, and analyze how the sample interacts with the light. 

The instrument provides information about the vibrations of molecules better than any other commercially available device, says inventor Martin Zanni, a professor of chemistry. Vibrations are useful for studying the structure of a biological membrane protein or a solar cell. 

“Molecules are like little balls connected by springs,” Zanni says.  “By measuring how they vibrate, one can deduce their three-dimensional arrangement, which is important for how molecules function.”

The patent builds on Zanni’s 10-year campaign to control the timing and phase of the waves in infrared light. In his research group at UW-Madison, Zanni has gone through a number of device prototypes as part of his research program while studying solar cells and diabetes. 

A few years ago, he hit on the idea for a design that has a number of advantages in speed, accuracy, simplicity and the ability to monitor changing substances. The new spectrometer design is catching on, says Zanni. 

“Over the last three years, we have helped a bunch of research groups build a device based on our prototype, but even with our help and our parts list, it’s taken two years or more for them to get it going. By forming a company, we’ll allow researchers to buy a full-blown spectrometer that they can start using the day it’s installed,” Zanni says.

For a decade, scientists have put considerable effort into inventing spectrometers to advance their own research, but Zanni says it’s more efficient for a working scientist to buy a spectrometer rather than devote the time and money to perfecting a home-made instrument. “I think this device can be incorporated in lots of different types of research because it makes the technique more accessible.”

“The conventional way of making these measurements could take hours, but we are able to collect a high-quality spectrum in minutes,” says Chris Middleton, a post-doctoral fellow in Zanni’s lab, and co-owner of the startup, called PhaseTech. “And it’s more flexible: using Marty’s pulse-shaping technology, we can change the parameters of the experiment easily, through software, instead of manually adjusting the optics.”

Earlier this month, PhaseTech announced the signing of a licensing agreement with the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation for the patents stemming from Zanni’s research at the university. The price for the spectrometer has not been determined, but “will be somewhere between a Ford and a Ferrari,” says Zanni.

The spectrometer can be used to study the activity inside a photovoltaic cell, Zanni says. “When a photon is absorbed in a solar cell, its energy is transmitted through the wires, and it’s important to identify how the electrons move through the circuit. A place where an electron gets stuck is a bottleneck that reduces the cell’s efficiency.”

Zanni also uses the spectrometer to study diabetes. Beta cells in the pancreas secrete the hormone insulin, which regulates sugar metabolism. In type-2 diabetes, particular proteins gather in beta cells, forming a toxic clump that damages or kills the cell, reducing insulin output. The infrared spectrometer can see how these clumps form, and study how candidate drugs affect that clumping.

In 2011, the National Academy of Sciences selected Zanni for the Award for Initiatives in Research, which “recognizes innovative young scientists and encourages research likely to lead toward new capabilities for human benefit.”

“Experts in the scientific community now understand this new type of spectroscopy and are using it to study many different applications,” says Zanni. “Now, a turnkey device is available for non-experts. We think starting this company is good for the advancement of science, will improve our understanding of many important topics, and hopefully will be viable commercially.”