Skip to main content

It’s Hot: High-Tech Sentinel System for “Cold Chain” Process

Tom Smith ’11 is usually the only one in the lab at 7:30 in the morning, when the glass orb celebrating his team’s winning entry in the JHU 2011 Business Plan Competition casts rainbows across the waiting computers and whiteboards.

Located in Baltimore’s Emerging Technology Centers, this space—with its chocolate-covered espresso beans on the conference table and temporarily idled Frisbee hanging on the wall—is home to ESDA LLC, the high-tech startup that Smith, a cognitive science and cultural anthropology major, created with two friends and $130 apiece during their freshman year.

Their current main project, and the reason for the award, is Magpie Sensing—a calculator-sized circuit board that tracks the temperature and humidity of sensitive medical and pharmaceutical products through “cold chains” of manufacture, shipping, and storage, which can involve up to 14 hand-offs. Using a sensor and a cellular chip, the device sends a constant stream of data through the cellular network to the team’s server, which stores the information in a database.

“This way you have a full record of everything that happens through the chain,” says Smith, ESDA’s CEO.

Tom Smith works on circuit board

Tom Smith works on the small circuit board he created that will track sensitive pharmaceuticals, like vaccines, as they are shipped.

Smith and his colleagues, Robert Douglas ’12 and Brendan Ebers ’12, both computer science majors, and Jon Smalletz ’08, an applied mathematics and statistics major, were interested in what they could do with wireless sensing. The team heard that an outbreak of whooping cough in Texas had been connected to a bad shipment of vaccines, and learned that such products can be ruined if they freeze or experience temperature fluctuations of more than about four degrees. Between truck compressors breaking down and refrigerator doors being accidentally left open, 17–35 percent of shipments experience these temperature changes, Smith says, costing hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

At under $200 for the long-lasting device, Magpie tracks the data 24/7, so it can offer manufacturers information about potential issues in time for products to be tested upon arrival. And what’s even more interesting to Smith and his team is that they can use the data to predict failures before they occur: ESDA created an algorithm that mines the incoming data for abnormalities and could indicate weak points, like a compressor beginning to break down.

“What we think is really great is not the device but what we can do with the data that comes in,” Smith says.

Consulting with potential customers, the team discovered that while shipping is indeed a dangerous time for medical and pharmaceutical products, such products face even greater risk when sitting in the lab fridge. This is a vulnerable period, Smith says, because most labs use a standard dorm-size model with imprecise settings, and because doors are sometimes left open through human error. So Magpie now has three components: the shippable version, a fixed-location version, and the analytics used to improve procedures. The team is currently working with the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions and the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to beta test the fixed-location version.

Running ESDA requires a knack for both technology and business, and Smith started young. The Lower Merion, Pa., native picked up his first screwdriver at 2, taught himself HTML in seventh grade, and began computer consulting at 13.

He spent two semesters planning to major in English, and wrote his honors anthropology thesis on the use of naturalistic vs. mechanistic metaphors in the official inquiry report on the recent financial crisis.

Smith’s adviser, Jane Guyer, the George Armstrong Kelly Professor in the Department of Anthropology, says Smith is “a perfect example of how our students can foster their ideas within a unique double major trajectory. He found intellectual connections and also saw how to make a technical innovation applicable in the global world.”

And so while Smith was working on his thesis, he and his classmates were running ESDA’s first project, which continues to infuse both capital and concept into Magpie today; the Hopkins Buybacks program purchases textbooks from students and sells them to a fulfillment center using an algorithm the team created to predict prices. Typical programs usually offer students lower buy-back prices and less certainty of making a sale, Smith says.

Valuable connections also come from Gado, a robot Smith created in a project he did with the Krieger School’s Center for Africana Studies, for the Afro-American Newspaper, to digitize photos in small archives. The City of Cambridge, Mass., and the University of South Florida, among others, have expressed plans to use the robot.

With a full-time staff of seven now, ESDA takes full advantage of the opportunities to share gear and ideas with other entrepreneurs at the Emerging Technology Centers, a nonprofit business incubator at Johns Hopkins Eastern that offers office space, shared services and equipment, and mentoring and networking opportunities to startups for below-market rent.

When Smith tears himself away from the lab, he and his wife, Amy Smith ’11—a history of science, medicine, and technology major—like to cook French meals in their Woodberry home, walk their bichon frise in Druid Hill Park, and travel. And now they are colleagues, too; Amy joined ESDA as marketing director this fall.