Marijuana becomes legal in Canada this summer, and a startup coming out of the University of Waterloo is developing a hand-held breathalyzer to help police officers catch stoned drivers.
SannTek is among four startups that each won $25,000 at Wednesday's Velocity Fund Finals pitch competition at the university, and it expects to have a working prototype this summer that can detect one-billionth of a gram of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, in a driver's breath, said Karolyn Mackowiak, one of the co-founders.
"Because we are using nanotechnology it is really sensitive," said Mackowiak.
Mackowiak and the other startup founders began work on the marijuana breathalyzer as a fourth-year design project in nanotechnology engineering. The prize money will help SannTek have a prototype that is ready for testing this summer.
"We will be able to accelerate our development," said Mackowiak. "We are working on getting our prototypes ready."
SannTek's device will have two main parts. The first is a cartridge that contains the THC sensors. After a driver blows into the device, that cartridge is removed and inserted into a portable analyzer that can detect tiny amounts of THC in the breath sample.
"We are making it portable," said Mackowiak.
Within five minutes, the portable analyzer will display the concentration of THC in the driver's breath. The federal government has set the legal limit at 2.5 nanograms of THC in a millilitre of blood.
Mackowiak describes the marijuana breathalyzer as a nanotechnology-sensing device. The startup showed designs for the breathalyzer to the Waterloo Regional Police and asked for feedback. The police said there is a need for it, and that it was small enough to be easily used for roadside tests.
Mackowiak said a study out of Colorado, where marijuana was legalized in January 2014, found sobriety tests used by police catch only 30 per cent of drivers who are high. Officers typically ask a driver to walk a straight line, touch their nose and say the alphabet backwards.
Marijuana is legal in nine U.S. states and in Washington, D.C. In July the personal use of marijuana becomes legal across Canada. So the market for a reliable and accurate marijuana breathalyzer is estimated at $1 billion, said Mackowiak.
The other startups that won $25,000 each Wednesday are Fuzzbuzz, a platform that secures software; A-Line Orthopedics, which is developing implants for safer surgeries; and Bibu Labs, which uses artificial intelligence to thwart cyberattacks. A-Line also won the $10,000 bonus prize that is given to the best hardware startup.