[Editor's Note: This week we are featuring MassChallenge startups as the anticipation builds towards next week's MassChallenge Awards Ceremony]
Another installment in our ongoing series to help innovative MassChallenge companies get the word out about what they offer and get connected with what they need to thrive.
"Silverside Detectors Inc. has developed a new kind of nuclear bomb detector to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism."
When we open a conversation with that bombshell (so to speak), the most typical reaction is a stunned expression. It’s not easy to focus on a problem that most people understand only in an abstract way, but choose not to think too much about.
Nuclear terrorism is a problem with unthinkable consequences, and determining the likelihood of a nuclear explosion in Boston (or any city) is as much art as science. In a 2006 study, experts set the likelihood of a nuclear explosion in a city in the next ten years at between 10-50% (PDF here), but this is guesswork. It’s not unreasonable to say that the chance is little more than zero.
But that’s the point: the chance is not zero. And the consequences of a nuclear device going off in our city is too ghastly to do nothing.
After 9/11, the U.S. Congress prioritized detector deployment to U.S. ports and borders to stop nuclear bomb materials from being smuggled into the country. But the active ingredient in the detectors, Helium 3 (He-3) gas, is in short supply, and growing demand from other industries—medical imaging, low-temperature research—has forced the price skyward. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) invested hundreds of millions of dollars in research to find He-3 alternatives. However, those alternatives have an even higher price point than the He-3.
Compounding the problem, isolated detectors like those in use today are no longer considered sufficient to reduce the threat. Instead, researchers are proposing networks of communicating detectors to cover large areas. Government agencies acknowledge that these networks will not become reality without new technology.
Enter Silverside Detectors. With He-3-equivalent detection capability at one-tenth the cost, Silverside’s flat panel thermal neutron detector can be the building block for scaled deployments of radiation sensing networks.
Imagine radiation detectors in jersey barriers, trashcans, traffic lights, and other infrastructure—all talking to each other. A network can establish better background readings than a single detector and thus can recognize a much smaller spike as a real threat, rather than writing it off as a background fluctuation. This is passive, discrete detection that you won’t even know is there. And it is revolutionary compared to the status quo.
If targeting an off-the-consumer-grid, unquantifiable threat is not hard enough, then add onto it the challenge of starting a business with the mile-long sales cycles that come with the territory of government sales.
Enter MassChallenge. Silverside applied to this Boston-based start-up accelerator program with little more than a mission, a technology, and a slide deck. At the end of the four-month accelerator program, we have the foundations of a company. MassChallenge has convened a truly remarkable community of mentors. And the expertise, advice, critique, and connections that the MassChallenge staff and mentors provided have catapulted Silverside forward.
There is a lot to be said, too, for surrounding one’s company with peers. (Piers, if you prefer—congratulations to MassChallenge for their new Design Center location.) We have learned as much from other start-ups in the MassChallenge community as from anyone else, particularly from companies that are a few steps ahead and can relay primary experience in raising funds, dealing with lawyers, and generally weathering the ups and downs of early stage companies.
Framed objectively, MassChallenge is about risk reduction: surrounding early stage companies with the resources and knowledge to increase their chances of success.
And Silverside is about risk reduction: making progress toward enterprise maturity to ensure that our product gets to the markets that desperately need it; and ultimately, massively reducing the threat of nuclear terrorism for Boston and for cities around the world.
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