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Akron startup Cannibuster aims to measure marijuana use in drivers

Northeast Ohio
Akron startup Cannibuster aims to measure marijuana use in drivers

Talking about legalized pot with her kids made Kathy Stitzlein think about the need for a roadside device to measure levels of marijuana intoxication.

As a PhD candidate in biomedical engineering at the University of Akron, Stitzlein invented Cannibuster, which uses a saliva sample to measure levels of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, in the bloodstream. The product is still under development and awaiting trials.

Law enforcement officers will be able to use the portable product to give roadside tests to impaired drivers. Patients using medical marijuana could use Cannibuster to determine if it's safe for them to get behind the wheel, said Stitzlein, 56, of Millersburg.

She originally presented the idea for an extra-credit class project. "It snowballed from that," Stitzlein said.

She founded the company Triple Beam Technologies (the name comes from a very accurate type of weight scale) to develop and market Cannibuster in Akron. A $50,000 grant from the state of Ohio's Third Frontier program, and a matching grant from the University of Akron, provided the initial startup money to take her idea further.

Last year, she moved the company from a shared lab at the University of Akron to an 800-square-foot space in the Akron Global Accelerator building.

In March 2017, her company was one of four startups to win a grant from the Innovation Fund, a regional pre-seed fund that has awarded $11.7 million to 178 local technology startups since 2007. Triple Beam Technologies received $25,000 from the Innovation Fund.

Multiple states have made marijuana legal for recreational or medical use, and more are considering legislation, Stitzlein said.

Ohio has passed a medical marijuana law and legislators are currently putting guidelines in place for the growing and selling of cannabis. As with alcohol, Ohio sets legal limits for the amount of THC in a driver's blood before that person is considered too impaired to drive.

"They have to find a way to test (for THC)," Stitzlein said. "The Cannibuster is a roadside marijuana test to be used by law enforcement to measure intoxication in drivers suspected of marijuana use."

Currently, a motorist suspected of driving while high must be transported to a hospital for blood work to determine the level of THC in the bloodstream, she said. Observations of dilated pupils or the odor of marijuana won't hold up in court. But THC levels drop during the hours it may take to get an impaired driver's blood work, she said.

Cannibuster, smaller than a credit card, will detect the level of THC, in just eight minutes. Schools and employers are other potential markets for the device.

Stitzlein decided to enter the business world because she she had entrepreneurial role models in her family. After earning an undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering and a master's in mechanical engineering, both from University of Akron, she worked at a Wooster equipment sales and service business owned by her husband's family.

Her husband, Mark Stitzlein, is the owner of Shearer Equipment, which sells and services agriculture and commercial equipment at several locations throughout Ohio.

Stitzlein decided to earn her PhD while keeping her eyes open for a new product she could develop.

In 2014, she took a class on miniaturized laboratories, which are biochips that can perform biochemical reactions. Students were given an extra-credit assignment to create a biochip that was microfluidic, meaning that it could use fluids, on a sub-millimeter scale, to make an automated system.

She realized that she could use these concepts to measure THC in the bloodstream using a saliva sample. She pitched her Cannibuster idea to Brian Davis, her academic adviser and chairman of the UA biomedical engineering department.

"My first thought was, 'Is this something we should be encouraging in a department that focuses on medical devices?' " Davis said in an email. "My second thought was that this was not the kind of idea I was expecting from biomedical engineering students!  However, I realized I did not want to be two-faced by encouraging students to be creative and then not supporting them."

Davis and Stitzlein participated in UA's National Science Foundation's I-Corps, a public-private partnership program that teaches university entrepreneurs to identify commercial products that can be spun off from academic research, and offers entrepreneurship training. The university also allowed Stitzlein to do much of her testing at UA as part of her doctorate, Davis said.

Stitzlein's intelligence, strong background in engineering and ability to overcome obstacles has helped her successfully launch her company, Davis said.

Stitzlein found the business world to be very different from academia. Her professors and fellow students focused on how she should develop and test technology. But business leaders just wanted to know about potential customers.

"I'm not a business person," she said, but mentoring from entrepreneurial programs at UA and the city of Akron explained the process and gave her confidence.

Now Stitzlein's Triple Beam Technologies employs four part-time students, and is ready to add a marketing director to help identify investors. Her next steps, which will span this year and next, include raise $500,000 from investors to produce samples of Cannibuster for independent tested by an outside lab.

The testing will not involve marijuana users indulging in a lab. "Our testing is done using donated oral fluid spiked with THC purchased in laboratory standards.  We will also be testing anonymous self-identified users, but never supplying any marijuana for their use," Stitzlein said in a follow-up email.

She grew up near Columbuss and moved to North Royalton as a teen. Her family includes four children ranging in age from 27 to 18, and they are interested in helping her with her business. ;

Stitzlein plans to work on Cannibuster full time after she earns her PhD from the University of Akron this fall.

"We keep on moving toward commercialization," she said.

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