Mode Labs

Compact field-deployable sensor for real-time environmental monitoring of water pollution.

Company overview

Recent stories about sewage emissions and waste going into rivers have highlighted some troubling issues in the water industry. Less attention is given to the hard-working people in the background doing what they can to solve these problems.  One of the biggest hindrances to finding effective solutions is being able to accurately locate and identify the problems in the first place. Current sensors on the market are big, bulky instruments that require mains power, and these sensors cannot be distributed over bodies of water or on points across the water system.

That is where Mode Labs, a spin out of the University of Oxford, comes in. Building upon research first developed by Professor Jason Smith from the Department of Materials and Professor Claire Vallance from the Department of Chemistry, Mode Labs CTO, Dean James, completed his PhD developing a chemical sensing technology. Over the last six years, the founders of Mode Labs have been turning this research, together with their academic founders at the university, into low cost, portable and easily deployable sensors for the water sector. The existing prototype is the size of a small carry-on suitcase, that runs on battery power and can detect a whole array of important chemical pollution parameters. However, the technology can easily be miniaturised to a shoebox-sized device. The device can run for months at a time without any maintenance, enabling them to get a handle on where the problems are occurring and what can be done to fix them. Now, they are working with customers to make these devices as easy to deploy as possible.

Our programme manager, Emily Vipond from the RSC, caught up with Dean to see what Mode Labs has been up to since winning the 2023 Emerging Technologies Competition in the Environment category.

What have you been up to since winning the competition?
‘We've been building towards a second prototype deployment with the award we got from the RSC,’ Dean says. ‘We are expanding our team with four or five new hires as we move into our new labs and offices.’

Mode Labs is gearing up for the future. The new team will be working on a design ready for manufacture, before scaling up towards selling their instruments. This work will be supported by upcoming trials with customers who will be deploying sensors for months at a time to carry out testing and generate feedback. Dean tells me, ‘We’re taking our prototypes, launching them for trials and working with customers to understand what they need next. The next stage is productization. We have these prototypes, and we will need them to be as simple to deploy and as rugged as possible. That’s probably our work for the next year or two.’ 

‘This is a platform that can detect a whole host of things. The idea is to broaden our scope – looking at emerging contaminants like PFOS and PFAS, and where we can help in other sectors, such as agriculture and farming. This is a huge problem worldwide, so we will be looking to approach new markets such as Europe and America.’

What made you apply to the Emerging Technologies Competition?
'I’ve been in the chemistry field for almost two decades now, and the RSC has always been a central figure aiding with both my education and my professional development. The Emerging Technologies Competition was the perfect tie-in at the perfect time.'

What did you like best about taking part in the Emerging Technologies Competition?
 ‘The event itself was a great way of meeting lots of companies at a similar stage. Whilst a lot of my networking tends to be in the water sector, it was refreshing to speak with companies from other sectors that are having similar problems and have different approaches because of that.’ Dean explains further: ‘The quality of presentations at the event was fantastic and, despite being lucky enough to win, it helped us step up our game and we’ve taken a few tips from the presentations we've seen’.

What advice would you give to anyone looking to apply to the 2024 Emerging Technologies Competition?
Dean’s advice is: ‘be careful not to use jargon. You're the specialist and you've been talking about it so much that things might seem normal and very understandable to you. But remember that the judges come from a whole variety of backgrounds, as does your audience. Try and be as clear as you can.’ He adds, ‘as scientists, we always get very excited by the technology, but it’s the application to the market that’s important. Make sure that you understand your market and that you explain your market very clearly.’

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