Space research led B.C. firm to more worldly success

Redlen’s groundbreaking radiation-detection technology used in medical tools, security field

Redlen, based in British Columbia, sells its radiation-detection technology around the world.

From its home base in British Columbia, Redlen Technologies has built a business by reaching out. The maker of radiation detection technology can even trace its roots to outer space.

The discovery that led metallurgical engineer Bob Redden to found Redlen, which is based in Saanichton, came out of work he did in the 1990s while conducting experiments for the Canadian Space Agency.

Redden was trying to grow semiconductor crystals, and it turns out that zero gravity is ideal for growing high-quality cadmium zinc telluride, an alloy that is sensitive to radiation. When Mr. Redden found a new method for producing CZT, as it’s known, he immediately saw the potential for commercial applications in medical imaging and security detection.

“The work that Bob did to explore crystal growth in space was almost serendipitous in a sense,” said Redlen president and CEO Glenn Bindley. “He recognized that some of the ideas he had for use in space could actually be used to solve some problems on earth.”

Redden died last year after taking the company from a garage-based startup to a leader in the field of radiation detection with a 30,000-square-foot manufacturing facility and business connections around the world.

Redlen had to forge its way into international markets from the beginning, because a small number of companies produce equipment used for medical imaging and security detection, and none of them is in Canada. The company pursued these customers in two ways: from the top down and the bottom up.

The company’s scientists attend conferences and connect with the technical teams that work for potential customers, then move up the chain of command. Redlen also makes connections with companies that might incorporate its technology into their products. This has been done at the executive level.

“In some cases the top down and bottom up align,” Bindley said. “That’s where you get your first commercial traction.”

One of the first commercial uses for Redlen’s sensors was a diagnostic imaging tool developed by Delaware-based biomedical company Neoprobe Corp. The handheld wand is used to produce images of lymph nodes in patients with breast cancer. Before this technology came along, doctors would remove lymph nodes without knowing whether they contained cancerous cells.

The relationship with Neoprobe was formed from the bottom up after one of its engineers contacted a scientist at Redlen following a presentation at a conference.

In another instance, Bindley capitalized on Redlen’s success by reaching out to the CEO of New Hampshire-based Gamma Medica, which now uses Redlen detectors in the molecular breast imaging systems it produces for the Mayo Clinic. With this technology under its belt, Redlen was able to sell an Israeli company called Spectrum Dynamics on using its sensors in their cardiology camera.

Redlen took a similar approach to the security industry. The company began by supplying technology to Massachusetts-based Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. for use in scanners that detect radioactive explosives.

After establishing credibility in the market for mobile security scanners, Redlen was able to approach customers that make more complex equipment, including the baggage scanners used at airports. Since the European Commission began easing restrictions on liquids, aerosols and gels in airline passenger hand baggage last year, these companies have been scrambling to commercialize a device that resolves a key deficiency in the scanners.

“The type of baggage scanner they have today doesn’t enable them to differentiate between Gatorade and nitroglycerine,” said Bindley. “There’s kind of a race right now to develop technology that will accurately do this, and we’re very involved in that effort.”

Redlen’s revenue this year will reach about $8-million. In addition to the United States, its customers can be found in Europe, Japan, China and Israel.

A key program for Redlen is developing technology for use in next-generation computerized tomography (CT) scanners. Penetrating this market would mean reaching the highest rung on the medical-imaging-equipment ladder.

“There are a number of things you can’t do today with a CT scanner that our technology will enable,” Bindley said. “We think it could have a huge impact and benefits to medical diagnoses if we can achieve what we’re working on right now.”

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