A new startup aiming to develop the world's first marijuana breathalyser raised a further $30 million last Tuesday. They also released a study giving some preliminary insight into how the device will work.
If successful, the marijuana breathalyser could help police and employers differentiate between those who have previously used cannabis in a legal way and those whose cognitive functions are currently impaired. As more states seek to legalise marijuana, speculators are predicting that the demand for the device could be very substantial.
Hound Labs, based in Oakland, California, recently told Business Insider that they plan to roll out the product this winter. The device can also measure blood alcohol concentrations like a conventional breathalyser.
The founders of Hound Labs, married couple Mike and Jenny Lynn, began their venture in 2014 when efforts to legalise marijuana across six states were at their peak. In 2014, voters in three states opted to approve steps to legalise the recreational use of cannabis, while voters in two other states, including New York, opted to only legalise medical marijuana.
Mike Lynn is an emergency room physician, venture capitalist, and reserve duty sheriff. His wife, Jenny Lynn, previously worked in top marketing positions for two large advisory corporations.
Hound Labs' new device will be the first of its type in the world
At the moment, there's no reliable way to detect if a person is too impaired by cannabis to drive or work. Police currently use basic “field sobriety” tests, such as walking in a marked straight line, or saliva or urine tests, which are only able to tell if a person has used marijuana at some point in the last few days — not if they're impaired at the scene.
Designing a breathalyser that can detect marijuana is not as simple as making one that can detect booze. When a person who has been drinking alcohol exhales, it's easy to detect high levels of alcohol in their breath. When a person who's been smoking or vaping cannabis exhales, marijuana is only detectable in negligible quantities — making it hard to pick up.
Mr Lynn compared it to “finding the needle in 10,000 haystacks” when talking to Business Insider.
In the latest study, Hound Labs set out to demonstrate that their handheld device was capable of reliably spotting fine traces of cannabis in the breath of a group of 20 participants who vaped, used edibles and smoked. Using Hound Lab's tool — which users have to blow into for 60 seconds — and a standard blood test, University of California researchers tested the participants every 15 minutes during the first hour after consumption and then every half hour for a further two hours.
The findings of the study were published in a leading Clinical Chemistry journal last month. While the study was small and funded by Hound Labs, it suggested the new device could detect recent cannabis use.
However, the study had some limitations as researchers didn't compare those who smoked against those who consumed edibles, for example, and results among participants varied dramatically, indicating it's still too early to link an objective numerical figure to ‘impaired' cannabis use.
Investors remain hopeful. Many say that as efforts to legalise marijuana use spread, society will need accurate ways to differentiate between individuals who have used marijuana legally in the past few days and those currently impaired by recent use of the drug.
Previously, other researchers have explored technology for a marijuana breathalyser. There's also a startup in Canada that is aiming to create a handheld detection device. The Canadian startup is called SannTek and they recently debuted their device at a demo day led by the famous seed accelerator Y Combinator, which was founded by Silicon Valley icon Paul Graham.
Hound Labs received funding from Dick Wolf, creator and executive producer of the hit TV series “Law & Order”, earlier this year. On Tuesday, Intrinsic Capital Partners, a venture capital firm based in the Greater Philadelphia Area, led the fresh round of funding. They were joined by Main Street Advisors and NFP Ventures. Two exiting backers, Benchmark Capital and Icon Ventures, also contributed to the $30 million cash injection.
Hound Labs confirmed that they now have $65 million in total raised funds, but declined to supply a valuation.
NFP Ventures' managing director Shawn Ellis sees the device by Hound Labs as providing a solution to ineffective urine and hair-based drug testing methods that are currently deployed across many industries, including trucking and construction. The current tests can't differentiate between a worker who's just smoked and one who used the drug several days before.