You can pretty well see plastics trash everywhere you look.  That’s a recognized and growing problem.  Until recently what has been overlooked is the hazard posed to human health from the plastic trash you don’t see—particles so small they are hard to see without a microscope.  These micro-particles are now prevalent in fish, in drinking water, and have now been detected in people.  They are in the digestive track for sure, but the question that remains is how many more organs are affected.  Recently, these microplastics have been found in human blood.  If you think having your arteries plugged with cholesterol is bad, imagine the potential damage from tiny, non-degradable, hard plastic particles clogging capillaries and small blood vessels.  And more research is continually uncovering even more adverse impacts from microplastics.

How did this problem sneak up on us?  It’s not like no one knew about the existence of microplastics.  The issue has been tracking where they are going.  The testing for microplastics has been time- and labor-intensive.  Analyzing one sample accurately can take ten hours on existing analytic equipment that costs over $300K, according to an EPA scientist.  

Steve Barnett (CEO) and Peter Hansell (COO) cofounded Soar Optics to tackle this problem.  Soar depends on a well-known technology called Raman spectroscopy to analyze samples by looking at their light scattering patterns.  Soar has been working on this for years, but now is ready to launch its first products.  Steve has a background of founding three other companies and has 25 years working with Raman spectroscopes to analyze many kinds of samples.  But he saw a glaring gap in the market where there is an urgent health concern and an existing technology that is not up to the task.  His “special sauce” is perfecting a rapid and inexpensive detection tool to uncover where these microplastics are, where they are coming from, and where they are going.  

Soar’s timing could not be better.  Just in September of this year, the State of California adopted rules for the testing and detection of microplastics, and for establishing limits on how much can be in water and still be considered safe.  The focus on microplastics was given a priority by a 2018 law amending the state’s Safe Drinking Water Act.  Raman spectroscopy has been approved as a detection method.  Over 2700 water agencies and others in California will be required to do this testing.

Now Soar has stepped in to make the detection fast, inexpensive, and highly accurate even for the smallest particles.  Their ultimate goal is to sell a dedicated, automated analyzer that even small agencies and industrial facilities can buy to meet these new requirements and expected enhancements of those requirements over time.  But their first goal is to offer the specialized Raman microscopes and  analysis-as-a-service on a subscription basis to get revenues started as fast as possible to demonstrate the effectiveness of their technology.

As a company, they hope to be profitable in their third year, with gross margins exceeding 55%.  They are looking for a small investment (<$1 million) or contract to complete their equipment development and get started on marketing.

Thomas Hall


Gary Simon is the Chair of CleanStart’s Board. A seasoned energy executive and entrepreneur with 45 years of experience in business, government, and non-profits.

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