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By Tim Hunt

Solving a big problem in the basement on 2nd Street in Livermore

Uploaded: Jul 30, 2020

Three years ago Tom Olenic and George Farquar set out to use cutting-edge technology to solve a vexing problem for employers and law enforcement -- how to efficiently determine whether a person was impaired from marijuana.

Olenic is a serial life entrepreneur while Farquar spent 10 years working at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory on chemical analysis before joining Olenic as a serial entrepreneur. Since leaving the lab, he's been part of four different start-ups with Buzzkill Labs in Livermore being the latest.

With recreational marijuana now legal in 11 states and medical marijuana legal in 33, it's a big problem. Unlike alcohol that is water-soluble so breath, urine and blood tests are all reliable, the active ingredient in marijuana, THC, is fat-soluble. Urine tests can determine past use, but cannot determine current impairment.

For law enforcement pursuing an impairment case, that means getting a warrant after the arrest, bringing in a person to draw blood and then awaiting the test results. It's very expensive. Officials have designed a field test specifically for the mental impairment caused by THC that can provide probable cause for an arrest. .

In their discussion with police departments, the immediate question becomes when can they get a unit? Current testing programs can determine if a person has used THC, but cannot quantify the degree of impairment.

Think about a person driving a bus or heavy equipment or a construction worker on a ladder or a high-rise building. It's legal for them to have smoked a joint after work or eaten a marijuana edible the night before. The edibles can be particularly challenging because a person smoking the traditional joint will get high quickly when the THC is absorbed into the blood stream through the lungs. It can take 30 minutes or more for the THC to work is way through the digestive system -- a delay that can invite a second helping.

The Buzzkill solution is tests using a simple saliva swab. Farquar already has proved the concept based on a series of tubes and plungers, and they've now developed their first prototype that they are refining. The next step is to bring it to market on a pilot basis early next year.

They're poured all of their time and money into developing the machine that will be completely automated once the swab sample is inserted. They've outsourced the engineering to the same company that serves 10X Genomics and its life science analytic tools.

They've been working in the basement of the incubator Daybreak Labs on Second Street in downtown Livermore. As a true startup, they painted their space themselves as well as hanging a drop ceiling. If you've lived here long enough, you will recognize it as the former JCPenney store in the pre-Stoneridge Mall days or, more recently, the ValleyCare Thrift Store.

When the pandemic hit and the incubator shutdown, Farquar set up a lab in his garage. He was doing double-duty because his first-grade daughter was home. His wife works for Lawrence Livermore so he was dad, teacher and researcher. Their chief chemist was working in his kitchen and then riding his bike across Livermore to deliver the samples to Farquar for processing.

Their machine is designed to deliver results in less than 15 minutes after the saliva sample is collected. It weighs less than 20 pounds and will operate by pushing one button. In addition, it will have the capability to test a variety of drugs: THC, morphine, hydrocodone, oxycodone, 6- acetylmorphine, phencyclidine, amphetamine/methamphetamine, to name a few.

Statistics from 2018 indicate that 43.5 million Americans used marijuana that year or about 16% of the population. About 27.7 million used it in the past month.

Their goal is to produce a finished product for around $20,000 that they can rent to agencies based upon the number of tests they conduct. Each test requires a disposable sample that potentially becomes the cash flow for Buzzkill. It's why the razor companies will give you the razor so they can sell you the blades -- same concept.

The company started with $1.2 million in seed funding and Olenic now is starting to raise the next round from venture capitalists in the $3 million to $3.5 million range. This will allow Buzzkill to start to scale and develop the sales and marketing teams as well as ramp up manufacturing.

They believe the market and opportunity is huge as marijuana continues to be legalized and employers become increasingly concerned about testing potential impaired workers. Worldwide, Buzzkill's white paper, estimates that the drug screening market was $7.1 billion in 2019 and is expected to double by 2027. Positive tests for marijuana increased significantly from 2015-18

These trends effect worker productivity, on-the-job injuries and workers comp claims as well as additional health problems driving up insurance rates. The Buzzkill founders believe they have developed the right technology to address this big problem. Despite the COVID-19 remote working, they plan to hit the market next year.