Ocean Optics Spectrometers
… in the beginning …
We were the inventors of the Ocean Optics spectrometer – the World’s First miniature fiber optic spectrometer, when we founded Ocean Optics in 1989, and we have developed over 2,500 miniature fiber optic spectrometers, cuvettes, light sources, fiber optic probes and chemical sensors in the years since. We can design the perfect system that meets your needs and your budget. We have more than 25 years experience in developing applications in the UV-VIS and NIR spectral regions, and in developing optical chemical sensors for pH and O2. Spectrecology is always flexible, we always back our products 100%, we provide the best technical and scientific support and we offer free shipping by UPS ground for orders over $100.
Starting your own company? You might find this interesting: Ocean Story How we did it
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The Ocean Optics Story…
The story of Ocean Optics has all the elements of classic struggles and unexpected success that defines so many entrepreneurial businesses. Woven through our story is a fundamental andy useful illustration of how innovation works best – through the intimate interweaving of marketing and technology. It is also very personal, a story of sometimes ill-equipped ordinary folks (like me ) who, with blessings from God, accomplished great things. And lastly it is one of the many stories of success in the most exciting of all the world’s technology industries – Photonics.
Ocean Optics began as a back-yard business when I was still in graduate school studying marine ecology and oceanography. My wife and I developed and manufactured pHish Doctors – pH sensors for home aquariums. The heart of the product was a pH dye (phenol red) that was immobilized in a polymer. We made the sensor strips in a tiny 4’ x 6’ aluminum shed in our backyard, and we sold the sensors to pet stores around the world.
The pHish Doctor relied on a person’s visual acuity to compare the color of the sensor strip to a printed color scale on a scallop shaped piece of plastic that hung inside the aquarium. People with good color vision could estimate pH to about 0.5 pH units. People like me, who are color blind, did considerably worse! We sold over 100,000 of the pHish Doctors to hobbyists, probably saved many pet fish from bad water, but we only earned about 30 cents a unit. We had bigger dreams than that.
In 1989 we wrote a proposal and were awarded a $50,000 Small Business Innovation Grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. Our proposal was to put the pHish Doctor sensor material on the end of an optical fiber, couple it to a miniature spectrometer and put the sensor at different depths in the ocean to measure seawater pH continuously from an instrument buoy. We said we could measure pH to +/- 0.001 pH unit precision! The purpose was to discover how fast CO2 from fossil fuels was entering the world’s oceans. I recruited Dr. Roy Walters to join the company to work on this project. Our initial work showed feasibility and a second $500,000, 2 year grant was awarded to actually build the seagoing system.
We were excited! Stick a pHish Doctor on the end of a fiber and buy a miniature spectrometer to read it. We quit our jobs to work full time on this effort. Then we discovered that there was no such thing as a miniature fiber optic spectrometer!
Not only did we need to invent one, we also needed to find a tiny computer, design fiber optics that could extend to 200 m deep in the ocean, build a pressure cylinder and buoy system that could run all by itself and figure out a way to make the sensor material stick to the end of an optical fiber.
What we thought was an analytical chemistry project suddenly became a photonics project. I had never even heard of photonics at that point. So, we had little or no expertise to complete a project upon which our very jobs depended, and luckily we didn’t know that conventional wisom advised that such a thing was not possible
Necessity is the mother of invention
Our project was doomed unless we could measure the color of the sensor material on the tip of the fiber from an instrument that would fit into a 5” ID pressure cylinder. And, it had to couple to an optical fiber. Our breakthrough came when Roy discovered a new kind of detector called a charge couple device (CCD) in an array from NEC that had been developed for bar code readers. It was small, had 1024 individual detectors and it was very low cost and low power. We built a tiny optical bench with grating and mirrors around the detector to give us a visible spectrum, made electronics that could couple the analog output from the detector to an A/D board and integrated it to one of the very first small single board computers.
The very first Ocean Optics spectrometer we built had terrible resolution — about 50 nm FWHM, and it had horrible stray light — around 40%. But, we did see a spectrum! Over two years Roy constantly made improvements to the spectrometer and I constantly evaluated and rejected his latest models. All during the project the first question I’d get in the morning from everyone was “Is it working yet?”
For 2 years my answer was “Not yet!”
Then one day, the answer was Yes! Its working!
By the end of the project we had done it – “The S1000, The World’s First Miniature Fiber Optic Spectrometer.”
So how did we invent the World’s First Miniature Spectrometer? -We were blessed with an overwhelming need to have one, and we had a very clear understanding of what it needed to do because we were the customer, and we were not hampered by conventional wisdom about spectrometer designs.
Learn to plan your business
During our project the U.S. Department of Energy invited us to join a business planning course. We said yes just because we thought it would help us win another grant when our first one ended. In fact the course really changed our thinking. We became convinced it would be much better to launch a commercial product than it would be to continue to write grant proposals.
Planning a business and writing a business plan are two entirely different things. In our course we were assigned homework exercises, we were reviewed and mentored and over the course of a full year, and we developed a long term plan and strategy for Ocean Optics. We used that plan for the next 15 years, as a guide for our day to day decisions, and as a roadmap for developing new products.
What we came to realize is that our miniature spectrometer was a disruptive, enabling technology that could be used in several different applications. Over the next 15 years, when we were exposed to real customers, we came to realize that in fact it could be used in thousands of applications, in industries and settings we had never heard of or dreamed of.
Marketing and Innovation
The famous management consultant, Peter Drucker, said that marketing and innovation are the only profit producing activities of a company. All other things that a company does are costs.
Big companies have marketing departments and engineering departments, and once in a great while they get together to talk. Or they hire consultants to come in and make them talk to each other, or they simply blame each other for the lack of innovation in the company.
At Ocean Optics there was only one department. Our mantra was “Marketing is Everything” and engineering was simply part of the marketing process. So how does that work?
- New products and technologies attract the attention of prospects and customers.
- Marketing/Engineers learn about the wants and needs of the customers.
- Marketing/Engineers propose a solution and get an order for the solution.
- Marketing/Engineers figure out how to make the solution and deliver it.
- Marketing/Engineers work with the customer to fix the solution, improve it and expand it.
- Marketing/Engineers think about how the new technology can be used in other settings.
At Ocean Optics this intense, intimate partnership with our customers led us to a remarkable rate of innovation.
Over a 15 year period we launched an average of 1.3 new products per week!
Virtually all of the new poducts were created to fill a need of a particular customer, but were also designed to fit into our bigger concept of modular parts. They were designed as part of a “tool box” to fulfill needs that we had not yet even encountered.
The key ingredient in marketing is communication – a conversation with the customer. We need to understand what they want to measure, when they want to measure it, where they want to measure it and most importantly why they want to measure it. So they most fundamental marketing task is to ask the customer… “Why?”
If we understand the “Why” we can use our experience, knowledge of optical sensing and cleverness to come up with the “How.”
Light — The First Order of Creation (Genesis 1:3)
Even though we serviced thousands of applications, and made new products at an astounding rate, there is an underlying simplicity to our approach. Venture capitalists and other critics couldn’t grasp how we could be successful without focusing on just a single application or market niche. The focus they didn’t appreciate is in the science behind the optical sensing.
“Light was the first order of creation, and all matter interacts with light.”
By measuring light we can understand everything! And the rules for how light interacts with matter are few and universal. As we gained more customers and worked on their problems we learned in detail how to use optics to measure many different physical and chemical parameters. While there are many specific details and expertise learned by trial and error that make optical sensing easier or more successful, the fundamentals are well known and well understood.
Optical measurement can be broken down into several matrices that help define an application (and coincidentally these matrices were the basis of the Ocean Optics marketing plan).
How Light Interacts
- Radiation (i.e., the light being emitted by a source)
- Reflection (light that reflects off of matter)
- Transmission (light that passes through matter)
- Absorption (light whose energy is captured or absorbed by matter)
- Elastic Scattering (light that changes direction in a randomized manner)
- Inelastic Scattering (light that is scattered and that changes frequency by interacting with molecular bonds)
- Interference (constructive and destructive interference of multiple light waves)
What can we measure with the interaction?
- Radiant power (radiometry) and derived parameters (brightness, irradiance)
- Optical properties (reflectivity, transmission, index of refraction)
- Chemical composition (qualitative and quantitative)
- Color & Appearance (human eye’s perception of optical properties)
- Macroscopic Properties (thin film thickness and particle size)
Why do we make these measurements?
- Research & Development and Exploration
- Education & Training
- Quality & Process/Industrial Control
- Environmental Survey
- Medical Diagnostics
Who makes these measurements?
- Innovators — Scientists, graduate students, engineers, new product developers in all physical sciences. Anyone who is trying to solve a problem in a new way.
- Quality Control and Process engineers in all industries
- Plant and Personnel Safety Staff
- Environmental Scientists, government agency technicians
- Physicians, clinicians, clinical lab technicians, health care workers
Modularity and Flexibility – instant new products and making measurements around corners
Most of our innovations seem commonplace today, but 20 years ago they were quite novel. Our design concepts mirrored our marketing concepts. We decided that we could address literally all possible applications if we had a product line that was perfectly modular and infinitely flexible. The fundamental idea was to eliminate the cost of non-recurring engineering usually needed to create a new product or application. We called this idea “Applications Engineering on Demand.” Much as you can order any movie you like to play on your TV any time you like, so too we strived to provide unique devices optimized for particular applications from off-the-shelf components in near real time.
Ocean Optics also had a flexible attitude. We were always willing to try new things and very eager to work with customers. We don’t let policies, procedures or caution stand in the way of innovation.
The core to making this concept practical is optical fiber. Using optical fibers provides a common optical interface among light sources, spectrometers, free-beam lenses and other optical components. Prior to the use of multi-mode optical fiber, the dominant cost and delay in creating new optical devices was in the opto-mechanical design and fabrication process. What’s more, optical fibers can see around corners! We could make measurements of samples in places that would be difficult, impossible or much too costly to do in any other way. One of our first customers needed to measure the color of the inside of a glove box in an automobile. No device existed that could fit into the space and measure the spot they wanted. They were actually cutting up samples of the finished product to measure the pieces in a conventional “big box” spectrometer. It took us only 1 hour on the phone to figure out how to do this and 1 day to invent a new product (a reflection probe holder), build it and ship the order to the customer. It was “The World’s First Glove Box Interior Color Meter!”
Transparency & Honesty in Data
The second most important innovation was using a PC and software to control the instrument. That was a big change from the dedicated big box instruments with their own electronics, displays and proprietary software and firmware that dominated the marketplace. We recognized that the mass markets make for exceptional value in components. Just as our inexpensive bar code scanner could measure spectra, so an inexpensive PC could be the “big box” user interface for our devices. And key to this was that once data from the spectrometer is acquired in software, there are limitless ways to analyze, present and use the data for different applications. In fact, we designed our software to be as flexible as the modular fiber optic hardware. We also pioneered the idea of showing users our “dirty laundry!“ We gave access to the raw data to the user, and gave them control over all the signal processing, spectral processing and analytical functions that might be applied. We did not use smoothing, fudge factors and algorithmic fixes to make our performance look better. Instead we allowed users to choose those functions themselves, and we showed them in real time the effects of those functions on the data quality. Our famous “scope mode” or raw data display mimicked what was seen by electrical engineers when they attached their oscilloscope leads to the detector outputs. The same raw data signal exists of course in all spectrometers but is generally hidden from view. Our opinion is that the user is in charge of the instrument, not the other way around. So we made our data transparent to the user and let them decide how best to use it.
Geometry defines applications
Geometry is the arrangement of light source, sample and detector in an optical measurement. Just by moving the location of one fiber, we switch from measuring transmission to reflection to fluorescence or scatter. Many of our new products were gadgets and fixtures to make the geometry easy to establish. Many times we discover unintended benefits from our inventions. We made the worlds first 4 way cuvette holder to allow the user to measure absorbance or fluorescence easily. We then discovered applications where absorbance, fluorescence and scatter need to be measured all at the same time, and other applications that depend on 2 light sources such as laser stimulated absorbance. We already had the perfect tool in our tool box!
Geometry also determines performance. I was asked by a customer once what the limit of detection was for an Ocean Optics spectrometer measuring concentration. I told him our limit of detection was 1 part in a billion-trillion! He of course didn’t believe me, so I described an experiment using a star as a light source, our spectrometer coupled to a telescope as the detector, and looking at the concentration of interstellar dust. The volume of space sampled by a 1 cm diameter beam of light from a star to our spectrometer is enormous, so our limit of detection is some very tiny number. In a more practical application, we came up with the idea of using 1 meter long capillary tube waveguides as a flexible cuvette for liquid samples. Optical fibers gave us a way to get the light into and out of the capillary. The limit of detection in the 1 meter cell is 1/100th that of a standard 1 cm cuvette. The lesson is that there is much room for innovation in even the simplest parts of the system. We could have achieved the same result by switching to a more expensive, lower noise detector, but at great expense and time. Of course now we have done both so our detection limit is 1/10,000th of what it was with our first system.
Geometry and fibers also present opportunities. Our 6 around 1 reflection probe was first made for a customer to measure the reflection of printed characters on bank checks. We needed to sample the dark ink area without also sampling the light paper area around it. Small fibers and proximity to the sample let us do that. That design is now our most popular and most useful fiber optic probe. It is used for reflection off of surfaces, back-scatter from suspensions and was even used in our fluorescence anthrax detection system we developed following the post-9/11 anthrax attacks in the U.S. In fact, that probe design remains the most efficient and sensitive optical arrangement to collect fluorescence spectra that exists.
Geometry has been exploited by many of our clients, as they develop their own instruments and applications using our core components. Dr. Garcia-Rubio, one of the co-founders of Ocean Optics, has used spectra of samples acquired from multiple angles with our spectrometers to measure particle size, size distribution, and even particle shape. On a trip to a malaria clinic in Venezuela, we were able to demonstrate the ability to detect malaria infections from a drop of blood in a cuvette and a simple absorbance measurement. Malaria affects the size and shape of the red blood cells, and the result is a shift in the spectra. Giving a result right away allows doctors to treat poor patients properly before they leave the clinic.
Bringing Spectroscopy to the World
The word spectra comes from the Greek word “to visualize” or simply “to see.” In a very real and tangible way, spectroscopy was a primary tool upon which our modern concepts of physics and chemistry are based. In this International Year of Light it is perhaps fitting that call the mission of Ocean Optics and Spectrecology to bring “Spectroscopy for the People!” The size and cost of spectrometers and other optical detectors continue to decrease, while at the same time a massive and efficient mechanism for collecting and using ever larger sets of data has grown dramatically. Other technologies such as 3D printing make developing new products faster and less costly. It is somewhat sobering to realize that the first Ocean Optics spectrometer was invented before the world-wide web, before e-mail, and even before the Intel 286 computers were released.
The ideas of distributed sensors, the internet of things and Big Data didn’t exist when we launched the S1000 spectrometer. But even then we thought that someday a spectrometer would be a household or personal tool, much as calculators, computers, electronic thermometers and other laboratory devices have migrated into the broader consumer market place. The potential for developing new products and businesses, for creating new applications that save lives, protect property, monitor and control products and pollutants, and provide benefits for societies and people is overwhelming. It will be fascinating, exciting and personally very rewarding to watch as these new ideas blossom.
The values and attitudes that made Ocean Optics such a great success are the basis for our new company, Spectrecology. We always strive to give you our best advice, best service and best products. I hope our story will help stimulate your ideas. I hope that every one of you has great success and a realization of your dreams. As we said at the beginning of this journey, our success is only limited by our imaginations!
Good luck and may God bless you!
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Good People we support
Outstretched Hands Ministries – Guanaja, Honduras
Glory Shiners Ministries – Njoro-Nakuru, Kenya
Developing Horizons Ministries – Jasper GA, & Austria
FIU Biomedical Engineering – Miami, FL