Several years ago, a friend with a neurological condition presented the founders of Engineered Medical Technologies with an unusual problem.
She was making marijuana-infused edibles to control her condition, but she only determined how strong they were by taking them. If she made them too strong, the cookies or brownies could affect her for a day or two.
“That’s not a good way to figure out how strong your medicine is … it’s like someone giving you a pill but not telling you how strong the stuff is,” said Peichen Chang, co-founder of Engineered Medical Technologies.
Their solution was tCheck, a handheld device that uses UV light to measure cannabinoids – think THC – in a material such as olive oil or butter. Turning tCheck from a 3-D printed prototype to a marketable product required a lot of testing, equipment and skill – all of which they found at Rocklin’s Hacker Lab.
The original founders, Bryan Cowger and his daughter Dr. Megan Babb, created their prototype in Cowger’s garage using pet store UV lights meant for reptile cages. When the device correctly measured cannabinoids in a test sample, they realized they needed more help and brought Chang and Engineered Medical’s fourth founder, Mark Falcone, on board to build a company.
Hacker Lab was just launching its Rocklin location at the time after creating a successful midtown Sacramento space for entrepreneurs. Chang discovered Hacker Lab through one of the meet-ups it arranged for coders, developers and engineers.
Hacker Lab supplies access to high-end tools for building and designing like 3-D printers, laser cutters and computer-controlled machines to members for a monthly fee. Hacker Lab also offers workspace and a variety of classes in coding and business, as well as tutorials on how to use the equipment.
Engineered Medical moved into Hacker Lab in 2015 and got to work on a more streamlined version of the device.
The latest model of “tCheck” is a little metal box, roughly the size and shape of the original iPod, only thicker, with a touch screen on the front that displays results. It is offered in four colors and will be able to connect to a smartphone app. A dollop of the marijuana-infused compound is placed on a plastic slide that, once prepped, goes into the tCheck device.
Many elements of the device were conceived and designed at Hacker Lab, but the slides required some of the most intensive work.
Engineered Medical went through at least 70 iterations of the plastic tray, Chang said, working with the CNC router, a computer-controlled machine for making precise cuts in a variety of materials. Chang said designing the trays by making new molds with every tweak would have cost the team $10,000 per tray.
The slide is patented because it was harder to design than it looks, particularly the divot where the test material is placed.
“There are some tricky parts to it,” Chang said. “It presents a uniform layer so (the device) knows how thick, in terms of distance, the substance is.”
They also made use of a laser cutter for etching their logo on the devices and creating packaging, a surprisingly complicated task, Chang said.
For the first couple hundred devices, Engineered Medical ran a production line in Hacker Lab’s space. Now the company has manufacturing contracts in several countries to mass produce their product. They sold 1,400 of the first generation devices at $300. The second generation version costs $200.
Most of the company’s 14 employees are Hacker Lab members, some of whom were hired because they offered helpful solutions while Engineered Medical was troubleshooting in the main coworking space. One current employee got involved when he suggested a way to fix a circuit board problem.
“To build a product, you need everything. It’s not just engineering,” Chang said. Besides firmware developers and electrical engineers, the company needed designers, photographers and customer support representatives.
“The rest of it that makes a product more than just a product,” he said. “It makes it a business.”
Hacker Lab co-founder Eric Ullrich said the coworking space is designed to bring members together on projects.
“That was part of our mission from the get-go … building the community came first,” he said. “The tools and equipment came afterward, it’s just about creating a culture and an environment where we help one another and kind of expand what’s possible.”
One Hacker Lab member started out taking welding classes and now sells custom-built furniture. Another created an app that is essentially a nanny-cam for your horse and now employs several student members from Sierra College, which has a partnership with the Rocklin Hacker Lab.
Engineered Medical’s device uses the same basic concept as any other spectrometer – it uses wave lengths of light to determine the chemical composition of a material. Laboratory-grade spectrometers are used for everything from detecting steroids in athletes to the acidity of rainwater. Those spectrometers are about the size of a dorm fridge and cost thousands of dollars, Chang said.
Cowger and Babb realized Engineered Medical’s device only needed to measure the specific wavelengths of light that interact with cannabinoids.
“You just need to know how much of the cannabinoids are in your butter,” Chang said.
There are at least 113 active cannabinoids in marijuana. THC is one of them, causing the stereotypical marijuana high, and CBD is another, commonly isolated for medical infusions and does not cause a high.
Chang said the founders took their prototype to dispensaries, edible bakers and cultivators throughout California, wondering how useful it would be in a wider market.
“We asked them, ‘Do you need something like this?’ ” he said. “And they’re like ‘Here’s my money, give it to me now.’ “
“We’ve had some very passionate letters and feedback from our customers,” Cowger said. “They do seem to be really relieved and excited that a product like this was brought to market.”
Eventually, Engineered Medical hopes to make a device that will test for pesticides as well, but for now its device can only be used with cannabis products, which has been an obstacle. If Chang and his partners advertise themselves as a cannabis company, they are subject to the same banking restrictions as dispensaries and cultivators. In April, their credit card company cut them off because of their cannabis affiliation.
It’s fine for others to talk about using tCheck with marijuana – Engineered Medical partners with cannabis cookbook authors and bloggers to market tCheck – but there’s no mention of the drug on the company’s website.
Ellen Garrison: 916-321-1920, @EllenGarrison
Information from The Sacramento Bee