NovaSol Wins $8 Million DOD Job

As the federal government scrambles to deal with threats of bioterror, a group of Hawaii scientists and engineers is working to develop a portable device that can detect harmful biological agents like anthrax.

Honolulu-based NovaSol has won a $7.8 million federal contract from the Office of the Secretary of Defense to develop the device.

NovaSol specializes in electro-optical and hyperspectral imaging systems used in reconnaissance and detection for military, medical, industrial and environmental applications.

"What we basically do is build fancy cameras that take digital images," says NovaSol Vice President Rick Holasek. "We also build the high-speed computer processing systems and software to analyze the data from the imaging systems and that produces a product, which is a picture highlighting features of interest."

The camera can be mounted on a plane, satellite, telescope or microscope.

"Everything has an electromagnetic signature," explains Holasek, "which is what gives things different color. You can think of it as a fingerprint. When the light hits it, it reflects back a certain color and that color is the signature that you can see. Your eyes can see a certain amount of that signature. But our cameras can see much more of that signature."

The contract gives NovaSol four years to develop the device, which will be about the size of a carry-on piece of luggage, says Holasek.

"This instrument doesn't exist now," says Holasek. "The way analysis is done now is to take a swab of something or wipe something down. You then send that item to a laboratory for DNA sequencing or culturing or other techniques. And this takes several days generally."

The United States has received a chain of anthrax scares in recent months with at least 18 confirmed anthrax infections and five deaths, according to CNN News. The U.S. Postal Service, government offices and media outlets have been the primary targets since anthrax-contaminated letters first began appearing in the mail in September.

NovaSol's device, however, will enable quick analysis, says Holasek.

"Our system will have real-time output and give you the results on the spot," says Holasek. "The goal of the project is to detect pathogens in low quantities and then detect the types of pathogens. In addition to anthrax, one of the toxins we are starting to look at is botulism toxin. And we are probably going to also look at smallpox. But that's to be determined."

The company will partner with Vanderbilt University in Tennessee and Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico to work on this project. Though NovaSol was awarded the contract about two weeks ago, it completed the proposal for the contract one year ago.

"[At the time] we didn't know anthrax would be an issue," says Holasek. "Basically, pathogen detection has a lot of medical applications as well as anti-terror applications. So we weren't working at looking at anthrax. But because of what's happened we said, `We'll take a look at anthrax first.'"

NovaSol is one of growing number of technology companies in Hawaii that are securing lucrative federal contracts from the defense industry.

"It is a niche," says David Watumull, chairman of the Hawaii Technology Trade Association's Biotechnology Council. "I do know there's a significant federal effort to generate research in these areas."

NovaSol left the state's incubator program at the Manoa Innovation Center in September to move to its new 5,000-square-foot corporate headquarters at 1100 Alakea St.

Business has been good for the company, which started in November 1998 with 12 owner/employees who invested about $1.5 million of their own money.

"We have more than $20 million in existing and pending contracts," says Holasek, "from customers that include the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and National Aeronautics and Space Administration."

In the past six months, however, the company has experienced rapid growth.

"We had 18 people last summer and we have 40 now," says Holasek.

The company hopes to double its work force next year and is seeking highly technical staff.

"We are looking for software engineers, electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, optical engineers, and some management personnel," says Holasek.

The company is focused on hiring Hawaii residents.

"I can't tell you how happy it makes me feel to be a part of creating technology jobs in Hawaii and giving people an opportunity to work in their field and live in Hawaii," says Holasek.

Terrence Sing,
Pacific Business News

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