If you can succeed in deep-tech, you can do anything. Because taking a complex concept – no matter how promising – from technical abstraction to the market means building the plane while you’re flying it. Cor Datema and Joost van de Griendt know this first-hand after working on two continents to make Dynaxion a reality.
Dynaxion came out of an idea that pure physics can make the world a safer place and started in HighTechXL’s first deep-tech cohort back in 2018. Dynaxion developed a particle accelerator-based neutron source to detect contraband items including drugs and explosives.
The concept has universal applications, but with technology this complex, the Dynaxion team had to prove an accelerator could do what they say it can do through simulations of the entire system.
With the basic concept worked out, they got an early confirmation they were on the right track from the 2019 Opioid Detection Challenge sponsored by the United States Department of Homeland Security, with Dynaxion receiving a $100,000 award.
The next step was demonstrating how the tech works in the real world. “And in the end, we did,” Cor says.
“The last year and a half, we created a proof of concept system; we built the experiment setup with two detection systems, a parcel scanning system and the unique neutron generator, working together with certain partners in the U.S. to help us with this.”
Dynaxion beta technology can detect and identify 16 individual substances, determining whether they’re an explosive or drug, or are just benign materials such as shower gel or toothpaste.
Just as important, Dynaxion has spent the past year consulting with potential clients about what sort of capabilities they actually need and want. What sort of materials do they want to detect, in how small a quantity and how quickly. “And we all said, ‘Yes, we can do this. But we need now to build a fully integrated system,’ ” Cor said.
Stakeholders want proof of accuracy on a variety of substances along with automation to cut labor, Joost said. At this point, their system has greater accuracy with fewer false positives, yet can detect substances in smaller amounts than existing systems. “Now we’re talking about, “How small do we want to go?’ ” Cor said.
At the same time, they’ve been rethinking which industries are the best fit for Dynaxion. Initially, Cor and Joost thought aviation security made the most sense. And it still makes sense in the future, but it’s a very conservative sector, slow to adopt new technology. Now, their focus is on customs and border security. While conventional X-ray-based systems in use now are touted as explosive detection systems, Dynaxion has far greater versatility.
“So, we can also detect drugs, we can detect tobacco or other materials,” Joost said. “And that’s why Customs and Border Protection are very interesting for us, because they are looking for any dangerous or illegal substance.”
Another competitive advantage is that Customs and Border Protection can use the Dynaxion system as an independent stand-alone system, while and aviation security would have to integrate Dynaxion into a complex existing system.
“So, if you would ask me what is then your first customer, I think it will be the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency,” Joost said.
Joost points out that the United States has 69 entry points where mail and parcel services – packages – come in, all overseen by Customs and Borders. “That’s, for example, why it was so great that we were a finalist in the opioid detection challenge,” he added.
Joost and Cor note the U.S. has a huge opioid problem, with just over 100,000 deaths in 2021.
Of course, this sort of deep-tech comes with requirements that, say, software and apps developers don’t have. The Dynaxion team has to not only build a final prototype by the end of this year but their own radiation bunker to test it in because the technology uses ionizing radiation acceleration. Radiation and humans don’t mix, but the final product is completely safe to use.
Toward that end, they’re working with customs and parcel shipment giants to get funding from Horizon Europe, the European Commission’s fund for research and innovation. Joost and Cor are also broadening their strategy away from specific markets to the overall market for substance identification tech. And that would open completely new markets.
“We’ve talked a lot about security,” Joost said. “But if you see our system as a substance identification system, you can do much more.”
That includes non-destructive testing of wind turbine blades and aircraft parts and the detection of harmful chemicals such as PFAS in drinking water.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are manmade chemical compounds used to make Teflon and other products. These compounds get absorbed into human tissue, damaging the immune system and causing cancer and organ damage.
Now, countries are passing new regulations, regulations that will require accurate detection methods.
“You have to create that market because, at the moment, people don’t know about the problem.” Cor says. “We’re really at the early stage now, where people start to say we need to know more about this. And therefore, if you invest in us now, in the next two to three years, new regulations will come up and only then we can start seeing, “Okay, how important will this be? And how many of these systems can we actually sell?’ ”
Another innovation is that Dynaxion is moving their focus expanding from developing only hardware to creating AI software for data generation and analysis. “Artificial intelligence will play a big role in why we can do this and others cannot do this classification,” Cor says.
Coming out of the earliest days of HighTechXL’s pivot to deep-tech from being a high-tech hardware accelerator has made Dynaxion’s journey more challenging. There was no real roadmap for a model that was being invented on the fly.
“It’s been a roller coaster ride. But I enjoyed every second of it, to be honest,” Cor said.
Even though Dynaxion has graduated from the accelerator, HighTechXL executives still advise the team as to how to deal with investors as a founder, “all the stuff you typically don’t have too much knowledge about, and they will help you with that,” Cor said.
Dynaxion fits into the overall HighTechXL legacy because they hear constantly that what they’re doing is way too ambitious.
“But wait … in a few years, you’ll see successes coming out of HighTechXL that are really important,” Joost said. Teams must have enormous perseverance to make it. “And that is where the HighTechXL ecosystem helps. If not for them, I would almost say normal people would have given up already way before.
“But we will never give up.”