Increasing Efficiency In The Lab

Jonathon Dawson

Jonathan Dawson of Fluid Imaging Technologies introduces the FlowCAM, which saves time and money by bringing better technology into the lab, while also increasing the data set for water quality monitoring.

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Todd Schnick: We’re coming to you live from Dallas, Texas. This is day two of AWWA ACE 2012 and Water Online Radio. I’m your host, Todd Schnick, joined by my colleague, Todd Youngblood. Todd, this day just gets better and better. We’re having a good one.

Todd Youngblood: We keep getting smarter and smarter, or at least we’re getting more information.

Todd Schnick: I don’t know about that.

Todd Youngblood: Not necessarily smarter. More knowledgeable, how about that?

Todd Schnick: That’s true. I think we’re going to get more knowledgeable with this next guy, and I’m really looking forward to having him. I want to welcome Jonathan Dawson, who’s the sales manager in the public water market for Fluid Imaging Technologies. Welcome to the show, Jonathan.

Jonathan: Thank you, Todd. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Todd Schnick: Well, it’s great to have you. Jonathan, before we get into it, do take a second and tell us a little bit about you and your background.

Jonathan: I am the sales manager of the public water market for Fluid Imaging Technologies, and we make an instrument called the FlowCAM and a variety of variations on that instrument.

My background: I have a biology degree from way back, and a long time in sales and marketing for engineering-type and instrumentation companies. I’ve been with Fluid Imaging for a couple of years now, focusing mainly on the public water supplier market, our market that we tend to target, public water supplier labs with our instrument.

Todd Schnick: When I hear biology guy from way back that’s been in sales for a long time, that sounds very familiar. I went down a similar path. Describe your company a little bit more, and how you got it started.

Jonathan: Our company is a spinoff of the research world. Our company’s based in Maine. There’s a biological research facility, Bigelow Labs, in Boothbay, Maine. There’s a group of researchers there doing oceanographic research. Originally, back in the ‘90s, they got together and developed a technique for automating what used to be done with a microscope.

They took this technique and spun it off as a company, productized it, and turned it into what we now call the FlowCAM. This is back in 1999, and we’re still at it. There’s been many, many improvements over those years, selling instruments all over the world, and I think we’re in 36 countries now, in a variety of applications, from oceanographic research to pharmaceuticals and water quality labs.

Todd Schnick: Tell us more about the technology and, more importantly, how is it used? How is it applied?

Jonathan: I think most people are familiar with traditional light microscopy, from your high school biology class. Traditionally, people have looked at microbiological contaminations in reservoirs and lakes, using light microscopes, a very tedious process.

You get the sample, you apply it to a slide, you spend the next two or three hours trying to count and identify what’s on that slide, and then you record that.

That feeds into some standard operating procedure within your utility, in the public water supply sector. What we want to do is make that process a lot quicker and a lot more statistically valid. The FlowCAM, instead of having an eyeball behind the microscope, it has a digital camera.

The fluid flows in front of the camera and the camera takes pictures of what’s in the fluid. You end up with a data set which includes images as well as numbers associated with those images, and it allows the operator to quickly identify and classify what’s in the water, so that they can then use that information to make other decisions about their water treatment or their reservoir management.

Todd Schnick: It makes a lot of sense to me, that you can identify things that are in the water with the technology you’re talking about. What financial impact does that have?

Jonathan: The cost benefit is huge. When laboratories do this, it pretty much takes a full-time person, using a light microscope. By adding the FlowCAM, that person is freed up to do some other work. It probably reduces the time it takes to do that analysis – it cuts it in, I would say, ten percent of what it used to be.

In terms of the operational benefit to the organization, there’s a huge benefit. In terms of the system cost, we have a range of instruments, depending on what the laboratory needs, in terms of functionality, ranging from about $40,000 up to about $90,000. We work with them to try to determine what they need to do in their laboratory, and try to fit the best instrument to their needs.

Todd Schnick: As you said, you’ve been spending most of your time in the public sector market. Talk about the technology in the public sector market, and give us a good mini case study on how it’s been successfully applied.

Jonathan: Typically, the instrument is used by a public water supplier that has a surface water supply reservoir that they need to manage better. A couple of case studies, Massachusetts Water Resource Authority, over the years, they’ve done a lot work. This is servicing the Boston area. They service about three or four million people in the Boston area.

For many years, they had a program using a light microscope, but they found that they weren’t always able to predict what was going to happen with their reservoir, using the data from the light microscope. In 2004, they purchased a FlowCAM.

They’ve, since that time, been tracking data on a couple spots on their reservoirs, and they use that data, basically enumerating, counting and identifying five or six different species they know to be a problem.

They’ll track those every week. When they see the population of a certain species start to go up, that feeds into their operating procedures and they have a meeting with all the operators and the lab people. They look at other data and they make a decision on what to do. In their case, they end up treating their reservoir with copper sulfate, part of their reservoir.

It’s a simple application: count the algae, if the algae gets high enough, decide whether to treat or not to treat. Another utility, the City of Westminster, Colorado, they take a more ecosystem management approach to their reservoir.

They have a mountain source of water, which is usually pretty good. In 2007, they had an unexpected cyanobacteria bloom, causing taste and odor issues in their end water, a lot of phone calls.

When the water doesn’t taste right, people call into the utility. They looked around to find a way to manage that, and one of the tools that they chose is the FlowCAM.

They, again, weekly, a couple times a week, depending on the time of year, they’ll look at their samples, using the FlowCAM and identify and enumerate not only algae and cyanobacteria, but also looking at overall particle counts and looking at zooplankton – little critters that are in there, eating up the algae.

They’ve been able, over the last couple of years, to correlate particle counts, algae populations and zooplankton populations, to be able to give them better information so that they can decide what to do with a reservoir, when they see changes.

They have a bunch of levers they can pull. They can change their intake, they can flush the reservoir, they can decide to go directly from their feed, from the mountain stream, and skip the reservoir. All of that comes from information that’s supplied by the FlowCAM to help them make decisions to do that.

Todd Schnick: Well, it’s a fascinating, creative application of imaging technology. I don’t think I’d ever thought of it. You guys are obviously good at that. What other new technologies do you have coming? Can you talk about any?

Jonathan: Funny that you should ask. Here at ACE 2012, we are launching what we call the PV Series, which comes out of more of the pharmaceutical side of our business, quality control, whereas some of our pharmaceutical customers ask for a simplified instrument that would really just require a technician to do some very simple steps in order to acquire the data.

We have a new product. It’s called the PV100, or the PV40, single objective, one magnification objective, very easy to use, very easy to gather data. On the other hand, it doesn’t have all the dynamic abilities of some of our higher-end instruments, but it allows people to get data very quickly.

It’s a great application for a laboratory that may not have a lot of depth, in terms of microbiologists, but they really want to be able to acquire this data and use it.

The sweet spot of the method that people are using is to use either 40x magnification or 100x magnification. We have instruments to be able to do that, in this new PV series, and it comes in at a lower price point, which is always important these days, with the municipalities tightening their belts and trying to do things leaner and meaner.

Todd Schnick: Jonathan, we’re out of time. Before we let you go, how can people get in touch with you, and where can they learn more about the FlowCAM and all the good works of Fluid Imaging Technologies?

Jonathan: You can Google Fluid Imaging Technologies. We’re obviously on the World Wide Web. We’re also at ACE this year, obviously, booth 2214. You can get our information on the Web. I can give you phone numbers and stuff – no one ever remembers phone numbers – but (207) 846-6100. Ask for Jonathan, or anybody who answers the phone will help you.

Todd Schnick: Outstanding. Jonathan Dawson, sales manager in the public water market with Fluid Imaging Technologies, it was great to have you. Thanks so much for joining us.

Jonathan: Thanks very much, Todd.

Todd Schnick: That wraps this segment, on behalf of our guest, Jonathan Dawson, my cohost, Todd Youngblood, all of here at Water Online. I’m Todd Schnick, and we’ll be right back with our next guest.