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The Massbox by Exum Instruments: Making Mass-Spectrometry Portable, User-Friendly, and Affordable

Petar Petrov
Written by Petar Petrov

In the world of everyday consumer goods, and especially technology, simplicity, versatility, speed, and user-friendliness are king. Just take the iPhone which packs a studio-worth of audio-visual equipment into a single, portable, faster, dynamic tool kids can use with ease. The same, however, doesn’t always describe the scientific niche of products, and more specifically, instruments used for testing cannabis for dangerous contaminants.

This is precisely the inherent flaw that CEO Jeff Williams and his teammates at ExumTM sought to fix with their ground-breaking instrument The MassboxTM, which is basically the “iPhone” of mass spectrometry – a lab-worth of equipment, packed into a single, portable, faster, easy-to-use tool. Better yet, it has one important addition that addresses another flaw that iPhones and mass spectrometry have in common – their high cost.

As Williams points out, while mass spectrometry’s operation cost is in the ballpark of $50,000 per year, assuming instruments run 1,000 hours per year, The Massbox comes at under $20,000. And since we’re talking numbers, while mass spectrometry may take days or even weeks to analyze a sample and derive meaning from the data, The Massbox accomplishes the same in hours. It’s only natural to assume there’s a catch, but this tangible cost and time reduction don’t come at the expense of accuracy and quality – the instrument’s detection limits for all contaminants that plague cannabis are below their danger zone.

The Massbox’s lower price is quite counter-intuitive, almost paradoxical. In the world of consumer goods, services, and business in general, an increase in convenience and offerings comes with a concomitant increase in price. In the spirit of its ancestry, the iPhone1500 will surely cost more than iPhone1499.

How and why does The Massbox defy this fundamental business principle, especially considering how drastic its improvements are, especially compared to iPhones?

Let’s start with the how.

For one, The Massbox is built on the same principle as do-it-yourself, customized personal computers (PCs) – eliminating the costly middlemen.

“A lot of the tools [in standard MS machines] tend to be isolated components that you buy from different vendors, so you’re paying for the margins of each vendor [not to mention the cost of the actual service]. We’re doing all of that ourselves, reducing the cost of manufacturing,” Williams explains. “We partnered with TopWorx, but they’re not building a completed product. We’re buying it in the OEM (original equipment manufacturing) world, so we can have that discount integrated.”

Of course, building your own PCs requires know-how, and the same goes for The Massbox. After all, we’re not talking a machine for playing the newest games and performing demanding video editing (as cool as all that is), but about a machine that accurately detects potentially life-threatening contaminants; a machine that has not one, but two lasers – one for ablation (removing material from a solid) and another for ionization – a mass analyzer, and an ion detection system, all under the same roof as opposed to in separate tools allowing for quantitative analysis of up to nine samples per session “across heterogenous matrices without matrix-matched reference standards.”

And Exum can pull this off because of their team’s happy marriage between engineering and science.

“There’s a really tight feedback cycle between our engineering and scientific departments. We don’t want this to be something an engineer built that’s not good at science or something that a scientist built that’s hard to use,” Williams explains. “We have science and engineering in every department. In fact, our head of software development is an analytical chemist as well.”

But all the engineering and scientific expertise in the world wouldn’t mean much without the right attitude to harness it and the right vision to channel it. One of Exum’s main goals is universal user-friendliness which can only be envisioned with a wide scope of thought that a forward-thinking team is capable of. After all, Exum started with rocks and operates in fields like pharmaceuticals, minerals, silicon chips, biological materials, and more.

“We ask ourselves, ‘How do we want to interact with an instrument and how do we make this process easy? What does the user really need to be able to do?’” Williams says. “With today’s advancements, we can do much more for the user instead of relying on them to put in so much effort. Everybody in the company knows that nobody wants to do all the work that analytical chemists love so much. They just want to put their sample in, press “go”, and get data.”

Exum has been firmly in tune with the constant change that is the status quo in the technology realm, always striving to make the most of it.

“The industry realizes that this is the direction they need to go in [user-friendliness], but they’ve refused to do it for so long that they now have faulty legacy software programs and hardware that they’re trying to fit in a different application environment with the old way of thinking,” Williams explains.

“We grew up in an app environment and we got to invent our instrument in this image from scratch. Other companies are trying to reinvent themselves in that direction, but they’re very large, and we’re very nimble.”

So, this was the “how” regarding what makes it possible for The Massbox to be faster, accurate, sensitive, user-friendly, and cheaper at the same time. But arguably the bigger question remains: “Why? Why not make it better and respectively more expensive?”

The short answer is the added sense of reward that comes from all the good, or all the prevented bad to be more precise, that The Massbox can achieve in the cannabis field.

“You hear stories about organic cannabidiol products, full of lead, mercury, and other contaminants because of the infancy of the market and the lack of regulations. It’s like the Wild West,” Williams says. “Some companies take advantage of the system and put out contaminated, unsafe products. So, it feels good to bring something that will potentially make this field mature faster and progress forward, because I do believe there’s a lot of good that comes out of the cannabis field.”

We couldn’t agree more.

About the author

Petar Petrov

Petar Petrov

Petar is a freelance writer and copywriter, covering culture, art, society, and anything in-between that makes for a nice story. And as it so happens, cannabis is a great element to add to each of those conversations.

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