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Magnitude Instruments: Making the Jump from Lab to Business

10 November 2021
John Asbury

When opportunity knocks, one invites them in, and when opportunity walks right through your door with a problem to solve, you run with it. That’s what happened to John Asbury. Today, Asbury is not only a professor of chemistry, but also a cofounder of Magnitude Instruments, where he tests his ability to adapt to the challenges of running a business.

In 2011, Asbury submitted a proposal to the U.S. Department of Energy in hopes of using a new type of ultrafast microscopic imaging—spectroscopy—that would aid in creating more-efficient photovoltaic materials that convert solar energy into electricity. Spectroscopy is used by researchers in fields ranging from chemistry and physics to biology and materials science.

“We can think of a spectroscopy research lab as an auto repair shop with all the different instruments represented by what you may find in a toolbox,” said Asbury. “When a vehicle comes in with an unidentified problem, a mechanic analyzes it to see how it runs. Regardless of the type of car, he uses the same tools to diagnose and fix it. Similarly, spectroscopy allows scientists to analyze all types of molecules and materials to better understand how they absorb light and, ultimately, learn about their structure and reactivity.”

Shortly after submitting his proposal,Asbury found out that the technology he needed for his experiments didn’t exist yet! As the saying goes, “When life gives you lemons, rally your team and build the equipment yourself.”

And so, Asbury and his graduate students set off to build their own new spectrometers. Working with the college’s Office for Innovation, they secured patent protection and funding from the Lab Bench to Commercialization(LB2C) Grant Program, which enabled development of new instruments that are compact, easy to use, and are just a fifth of the cost of others.

“Most transient absorption spectrometers take up a whole room, need a dedicated staff, and are very expensive to build and operate,” said Asbury. “We built a portable version that is over 100 times more sensitive than models at the time.”

With the support of Invent Penn State, Asbury and his team found themselves learning more about commercialization and running a company. Their growth and success expanded thanks to Ben Franklin Technology Partners, TechCelerator, the Penn State Research Foundation, the Biotechnology & Technology Advisory Boards, the Startup Leadership Network, Happy Valley LaunchBox, and others.

Now nearly a decade later, the team operates under the company name Magnitude Instruments, with Asbury as chief scientific officer, Eric Kennehan as chief executive officer, and Christopher Grieco as software engineer.

“We help close the loop between fundamental science and practical applications,” explained Asbury.

While some parts of the company’s work have been put on pause during the pandemic, Asbury points out that it has allowed for his team to focus on a much-needed facet of Magnitude Instruments: marketing.

“We’re new to marketing, so there's a lot of messaging we're trying to learn how to do,” said Asbury. “How do you market to people like me who are embedded in the spectroscopy field? We want to help scientists understand that these tools are now available to them and what they can do. And we're trying to expand into other markets, because our technology is enabling this type of spectroscopy to be used in contexts where it hasn’t been accessible before.

As of this year, Magnitude Instruments has sold five instruments, the newest to the National Renewable Energy Lab, and has 20 more orders in the pipeline. Two institutions have already used their instruments to publish scientific results, and Asbury believes others will soon follow suit.