Comstock’s Startup of the Month: Soar Optics

Since the 1950s, plastic has been a staple due to its durability, but an unseen byproduct of this material is microplastics. These microscopic particles can be found everywhere, from Antarctica to Mt. Everest to breast milk.

“The volume of plastics has increased every year,” says Steve Barnett, co-founder and CEO of Soar Optics, an Elk Grove company developing technology to identify microplastics in water. “Plastics are great because they don’t degrade, but they are also a problem since the microplastics produced from these products do not degrade either.”

In 2018, the California Legislature tasked the California State Water Resources Control Board to come up with methods to detect microplastics in drinking water and other environmental areas. This led to a state-funded study with about 30 research groups. Barnett, who was a part of this cohort, says the recommended methods were better than nothing but limited in their scope, speed and cost.

Separately, he had submitted a patent application for a new type of rapid chemical imaging, which he realized could be used to improve microplastics detection. Barnett, a chemist by training, has had a company selling chemical and material analysis products since 2010. Soar Optics is an offshoot of that, he says.

The detection tool looks essentially like a microscope. Based on a technique called Raman spectroscopy, the technology uses a laser to illuminate microplastic particles that have been filtered from a water sample. Analysis of the scattered light is used to determine their chemical composition. In the future, Barnett says, the technology can be modified to detect microplastics in wastewater, soil and food.

“I’m essentially combining two technologies that have never been used together before,” Barnett says. “The rapid scanning has been around for a while with simpler detection methods. Independently, the two technologies were out there, but they’ve never been put together to leverage this rapid detection.”

The startup was a Western Regional Winner in 2022, which Barnett says helped the company refine and validate its concept and direction. That same year, within a month of forming, Soar Optics also got into the clean technology accelerator, Cleantech Open, chosen by Lou Bendon, retired president of Flycatcher Marketing. Bendon, who spent the past 20 years as consultant within the water industry, says Soar Optics stood out because Barnett had a fresh idea and a flexible mind.

“What I liked is that he was open to suggestions,” Bendon says. “Many times you run into entrepreneurs in the early stage and they’re close-minded. They think they know everything. Steve was willing to adapt and adjust once confronted with argument.”

As noted, the big issue with microplastics has to do with being able to identify, isolate and measure them in water systems. Soar Optics has come up with a solution for utilities to accomplish this without sending samples to a lab and waiting for the results. From the utilities perspectives, detailed fast reporting is critical to how they run their business, Bendon says, and the Soar Optics solution would make the whole operation more efficient.

“I believe their model of removing the burden from the utilities to test and report to state regulators is a brilliant model,” Bendon says. “It solved a problem, makes cost predictable and projectable for water agencies, and creates long-term revenue for Soar.”

Right now, the Soar Optics team of four aims to take this seed-stage company to the next level. Feedback in the water monitoring community has been positive, Barnett says. Funding will support the development of a prototype.

“We’re putting the pieces in place and have to do proof of concept measurements,” Barnett says. “But we’re getting good feedback across the country from those involved in this field. They think our ideas make a lot of sense.”

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