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Revolutionizing Soil Analysis: The Journey of S4 Mobile Laboratories and Their Collaboration with MAGNET

In the world of technology and innovation, collaboration plays a crucial role in bringing groundbreaking ideas to life. This is particularly true for startups, which often rely on partnerships with experienced organizations to refine their concepts and develop market-ready products. One such inspiring collaboration is between S4 Mobile Laboratories, a startup with a vision to revolutionize soil analysis, and MAGNET (Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network), a non-profit organization dedicated to helping manufacturers innovate and grow, both headquartered in Northeast Ohio.

 

 S4 Mobile Laboratories: A Vision for Innovation


 David Perry, the Chief Technology Officer and co-founder of S4 Mobile Laboratories, shared insights into their journey from concept to prototype. S4's mission began with the goal of developing a small, portable device for soil spectroscopy. They envisioned something practical for field use — a device that could be easily moved and operated by one or two people.

 

The need for a compact, portable device led to the design of an all-fiber optic probe, which was significantly thinner and required less force to insert into the ground. This innovation was inspired by the market need for detecting buried bodies in clandestine graves, particularly in confined areas such as unmarked graves at First Nations boarding school sites in Canada and Native American boarding school sites in the United States.

 

 The Role of MAGNET in S4’s Journey


 S4's journey from concept to prototype was greatly supported by MAGNET, an organization known for driving manufacturing and innovation in Northeast Ohio. Andrew Somrak, a seasoned mechanical engineer at MAGNET, provided an inside look at how MAGNET partnered with S4 to transform their ambitious idea into a functional prototype.

 

When S4 approached MAGNET, their product idea was broad and not fully defined. Andrew and his team played a pivotal role in developing the concept into a specific, buildable product. The process began with identifying the requirements, such as components and specific features. The consulting team assisted in refining these needs, proposing more cost-effective and precise alternatives to achieve the desired outcomes.


 Overcoming Challenges with the Help of MAGNET and Other Organizations


Developing the S4 prototype involved several engineering challenges and innovations, aided by MAGNET and by Fiberoptic Systems, Inc. The process began by understanding the need for a lightweight and efficient probe, initially burdened by bulky designs incorporating light sources and spectroscopic instruments. The refined design relocated these components above ground, leaving the probe with only fiber optics, resulting in a thinner, lighter, and easier-to-insert device. This new all-fiber optic probe, about 14 mm in diameter, could be inserted up to 90 cm deep, accommodating varying soil conditions with forces typically in the range, 50 to 300 pounds. To tackle the problem of thermal expansion, a special feature was created to prevent damage from temperature changes, ensuring the probe stays durable in various weather conditions. The prototype also needed to be lightweight, easy to maneuver, and tough enough to handle outdoor use.


The Subterra© design was refined for scalable, cost-effective manufacturing, with careful selection of materials and components to balance functionality and durability. Throughout this process, the MAGNET team provided essential engineering and design support, transforming the innovative concept into a practical, market-ready prototype.

 

In addition to the support given by MAGNET, S4 benefited from the robust support network for startups in Ohio and Northeast Ohio:


1. University of Akron Research Foundation (UARF): Provided legal and financial management support.

2. STRIDE from UARF: Offered meaningful, purpose-driven mentorship and a cohort dynamic to help S4 accelerate their hard technology startup.

3. Bounce Innovation Hub: Offered subsidized space and support for S4 during their early stages, including financial assistance through challenging periods.

4. JumpStart: Assisted with salaries for student interns, helping S4 manage their workforce needs.

5. Jeff Dick of GED Geologic and Environmental Consulting: Offered a test site for validating the probe's functionality, crucial for developing convincing demonstration data.


These organizations collectively provided the financial, logistical, and technical support necessary for S4 to overcome the challenges of developing their innovative soil analysis technology.

 

 The Path to Market


 With MAGNET's support, S4's prototype began gaining traction in the market. They have deployed units in Canada to assist in locating unmarked graves and in Austria for soil carbon measurement. The collaboration between S4 and MAGNET has been instrumental in producing these initial units and refining the design for future production.

 

David Perry emphasized that the support from MAGNET and other local organizations has been crucial in navigating the challenges of a startup. However, he also noted the difficulty in accessing startup funding in Ohio compared to regions like California or the East Coast, highlighting a need for more robust financial support to help startups like S4 thrive.

 

 Looking Ahead


 As S4 moves forward, they plan to iterate their design, optimize for production cost, reliability, and performance, and scale up manufacturing. MAGNET will continue to play a central role in this next phase, providing the engineering expertise and manufacturing support needed to transition from prototype to a market-ready product.

 

The journey of S4 Mobile Laboratories, supported by the dedicated efforts of MAGNET and other organizations in Ohio, exemplifies the power of collaboration in driving innovation. Through their partnership, they have made significant strides in revolutionizing soil analysis, with the potential to impact environmental and agricultural practices profoundly.

 

About

 

MAGNET, the Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network, is dedicated to transforming manufacturing in Northeast Ohio through high-impact consulting and strategic initiatives. With a focus on operational excellence, innovation, and talent development, MAGNET partners with small- and mid-sized manufacturers to drive measurable growth. Their comprehensive services include enhancing strategy, improving technology, and fostering workforce development. By connecting industry leaders, providing insights, and promoting smart manufacturing, MAGNET is committed to making Northeast Ohio a global leader in manufacturing excellence.

 

For more information, visit MAGNET.

 

About S4 Mobile Laboratories

 

S4 Mobile Laboratories specializes in innovative mobile soil testing solutions designed for non-scientists. Their flagship technology, Subterra©, can detect numerous chemical signatures underground, making it valuable for various sectors, including law enforcement, military, environmental science, agriculture, and archaeology. By offering real-time analysis and easy operation, S4's mobile labs provide a faster, more cost-effective alternative to traditional soil sampling methods. Supported by $1.6 million in grants, S4 Mobile Laboratories aims to deliver precise and reliable soil intelligence to its clients.

 

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