World-first NMR chemical analysis for WaveGuide

This is a case study of ambition. It tracks our relationship with a Massachusetts start-up called WaveGuide Corporation and their ground-breaking idea to liberate nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) chemical analysis from the laboratory. During the long-term partnership, CC provided multidisciplinary device development expertise as WaveGuide gained momentum as a company. Now, we can proudly reflect on our association with The WaveGuide Formµla™ – the world’s first portable, battery-operated micro (µ) NMR device.

A breakthrough in point of use analysis

Many global markets have moved towards fast, inexpensive, decentralised analysis to improve a variety of quality metrics. WaveGuide spotted how the growing prevalence of counterfeit and substandard pharmaceuticals offered an opportunity for an onsite analytical tool to scale testing quickly and inexpensively, even by a non-scientist operator. Their vision was for a portable instrument allowing users to perform point of use chemical analysis – in minutes, with no technician training and at a fraction of the cost of expensive labs. The company looked to CC to help develop a looks-like, works-like prototype that would gather customer feedback and gauge market fit in advance of commercial productisation.

A wide range of commercial applications

Although in some cases the results of WaveGuide’s technology are not as accurate as a very expensive lab-grade NMR instrument, it can be used as a quick screening test to determine if samples need to incur the time and cost of further confirmation. In WaveGuide’s own words, the revolutionary device detects and quantifies nearly anything, from detecting illness to quantifying purity of materials. From motor oil to olive oil, including pharma purity and pathogen presence. The possible applications are many and varied: food quality officers testing the fat content of products and assessing milk quality, police officers performing roadside intoxication tests for cannabis, machine shop staff checking for contamination in machine oil for high-speed cutters. The list goes on.

User design for manufacturing insight

CC has collaborated with WaveGuide since 2015, initially to develop a medical diagnostic. Circumstances brought the NMR device opportunity to the fore, and in 2019 we kick-started the project with a series of workshops to define prototype requirements and plot a commercial roadmap for the µNMR device. As is usual with start-ups, WaveGuide’s impressive engineering culture was quite rightly focused on the technology. We were able to add crucial user perspectives and manufacturing insight to the mix, as we harnessed the broad expertise of our multidisciplinary team.

Variety of engineering skillsets

CC is uniquely placed to synthesize the various strands of such a complex project – whether that’s multidisciplinary implementation or the ‘soft skills’ of teasing out the subtle nuances of a given spec. The variety of engineering skillsets that formed our team’s backbone was enhanced by physicists with an understanding of the core technology, plus radio frequency (RF) and electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) specialists who reviewed designs and resolved problems.

Commercial and technical exploration

User experience and system engineering were also key. WaveGuide needed help to define the product within the limits of user needs when there was no reference product on the market. The workshops explored both the commercial needs and the technical constraints as we worked with our client to support and challenge them through the decision-making process of product definition. Healthy disagreement and impassioned debate were both part of the process, as they should be. Without questioning assumptions and refusing to take things at face value it would have been impossible to arrive at a coherent and robust solution.

A rethink that enhanced user experience

Here is just one example of that. The original concept was for a Bluetooth connected device without a user interface. The trouble is that the device is extremely sensitive to radio interference, so keeping the connection during an analysis would have been challenging in the extreme. On the other hand, having no feedback during a test would make for a poor user experience. Examining user workflows and discussing technical restraints exposed this – and after a crucial rethink the user interface was incorporated into the device.

Innovation partnership building

The early days of our innovation partnership building with WaveGuide focused on building a prototype that could test initial market assumptions and garner customer feedback. It had to be robust and reliable enough for field use without sucking up too much up-front engineering cost. Waveguide’s technical development progress was impressive – including the design of a custom mixed signal ASIC (for NMR waveform generation and demodulation) and a custom permanent magnet. But their lab prototypes were a little too fragile to venture beyond the lab bench.

The challenges of rapid prototyping

With a novel product, a key requirement is to create a market for it by highlighting business benefits. The polished prototype that looked, felt, and performed was pivotal if prospective buyers were to be convinced. It was developed using rapid prototyping techniques such as 3D printed caseworks. This meant that the highly accurate positioning for the sample – in an extremely small glass test tube – was tremendously challenging.

An award-winning precision NMR instrument

The µNMR is a precision instrument which requires very homogenous permanent magnets and highly sensitive RF electronics, and which has an intuitive interface for users untrained in analytical chemistry or NMR. It is the product of a broad skillset incorporating system engineering, electronic design, industrial design, mechanical engineering, software, and user experience. The multidisciplinary approach called for close collaboration between all those teams and led to a coveted iF Design Award for a fully functional precision instrument with tight space and tolerance constraints. The device also won Pittcon’s Gold Award in 2020.

A novel product with transformational impact

The prototype remains in use around the world, continuing to convert customers and inform the commercial version. As we write, CC is transferring prototype production to the contract manufacturer so that the scale up can progress. Next comes architecture and design for manufacturing on a mass scale – and we continue to work with WaveGuide to help refine that vision for new product introduction as well as supporting WaveGuide with the iteration of the product to detect infectious diseases and cancers. As for impact, it will be transformational rather than incremental. It is not a case of reducing the costs of a conventional approach, it is a matter of creating a whole new paradigm of point of use testing.

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