Humans like to think big. From the days of Icarus, there has been a balancing act between daring and hubris: the former clears out the clutter of tiny fears to attempt something as yet unachieved, while the latter, in extreme expressions, attempts the ridiculous, typically to the primary benefit of one or more egos, with often questionable benefit (other than entertainment value) to the wider world.
Some individuals and companies are thinking very big when it comes to changing how we all access the most basic resources around us. The first such change happened when we as humans went from simply walking out of our homes to collect our food for free (expending only the energy required to locate and harvest or hunt the food) to one where almost no one acquires their food “for free.”
That creator-merchant-consumer model has worked for resources that require obvious human intervention, like farming and energy production. Resources that are more prevalent – air and water, primarily – have always been considered “free,” aside from various usage fees or taxes we pay to facilitate clean water or clean air.
But in our increasingly monetized world, such economic activity is being scrutinized (the use of water, even if free, is economic activity since a resource changes hands, with or without an accompanying money transfer; air is less clear, since no one controls its delivery – yet). Rather than coming up with new products that have new revenue streams, some companies have been working on redefining the most fundamental ones.
Such thinkers are looking at ways of tapping into these primal economic activities and pulling a chunk out of (or adding a chunk to) the “revenue stack.” One of the more visible changes has been the food stream, with genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) leading the way. While most of the GMO attention goes to debating whether or not they are healthy (a debate we will not take on here), the other, quieter part of the debate is the business model.
It used to be that, as a farmer, you bought your seed and grew your crop and saved some seed for next year and sold the rest. With GMOs, however, you don’t buy the seed; in essence, you license it. This is consistent with our general move away from an ownership society: we are no longer supposed to own things; only a few big companies own them. We license them. And farmers license their seeds from the big seed providers if they choose to go that way.
But here’s the key, and we detour down this road slightly because it forms the foundation for the story we’re going to discuss today (and bear with me, it is, in implementation, a semiconductor sensor story). For those farmers that decide not to follow this model, the rumor mill is rich with stories of seed salesmen “accidentally” spilling their seed on the lands of a farmer that won’t play ball or pollen from neighboring fields “contaminating” an unlicensed field. In both cases, the seed company can then sue the farmer for violating their intellectual property even if the farmer did nothing or knew nothing.
Whether these stories are true or apocryphal doesn’t necessarily matter (and again, it won’t be debated here). Such stories create a “reality” of their own (especially these days, where you can restrict your factual input to sources that fortify your personal view of reality), and this one got a few enterprising guys, led by one Isaac Dyne, thinking over a few drinks as they marveled at what an excellent business model that was. “You buy from us, we win. You don’t buy from us, we still win eventually.”
And the thinking got really big (as ambitions fueled by Bacchus are wont to do). Not to the point of trying to monetize air – that’s too much, but finding a way to tap into the water stream in a way that’s at least as unavoidable as the seed business. And that’s where we start this specific story.
A watery tale
I’m going to confess up front that you’re going to find this narrative to be frustratingly short on technical specifics. That’s because the specifics are intentionally unavailable. I had pretty much no luck finding anything on the open internet; it was based only on a couple of chance conversations at recent conferences that I was able to put together as much as I have (and I’m placing a lot of trust in the candor of the folks I talked with, and they’re trusting me not to name them).
Here’s how it came about, as far as I can tell. These guys were brainstorming for a way to “add value” to the water stream. That means doing something to water that’s identifiable as your contribution while doing no harm – and potentially doing some good.
Delivering micronutrients seemed like an interesting angle, and one of them hit upon the fact that we rely on table salt as a way of getting iodide into our diets, and yet we’re all trying to reduce the use of salt. Could we perhaps not be getting enough iodide as a side-effect of this? Could water be a better vehicle for iodide? Everyone needs water; everyone needs iodide. Not everyone needs store-bought salt.
And with that, they formed Advanced AquaNutrients, or AAN. That turned out the be a particularly good way to stay under the radar for “stealth mode” development in Northern California, since, in that part of the country, companies with “nutrient” in their names tend to be targeted for bulking up certain unnamed plants rather than humans. All of which happens just under the radar.
But it’s not as simple as dumping iodine into the water and calling it good. They needed a way that was unique to them and could be detected (that’s the sensor part). Iodide (or ionic iodine) is very reactive in general, both in forming compounds and even in catalyzing other reactions – meaning that it bonds and unbonds easily (good “nucleophile” and “leaving group”). Water is an uncontrolled environment, and they needed some way of controlling the delivery of the iodide.
So they found a suitable protein (a “normal” one that’s well-handled by humans), found a place to bond the iodine on that protein, and then tinkered with the folding so that the iodide was essentially encased, blocking further interactions (the ultimate in so-called “steric hindrance”). They appear to have patented both the molecule itself and the process of making the molecule.
Of course, iodide that doesn’t react with anything doesn’t make for a very effective nutrient. They had to make sure that their encapsulation could release the iodide in the human body. They relied on our extremely low stomach pH, a level of acid that’s not found in many natural waterways. This acid denatures that protein capsule, releasing the iodide and leaving a slightly modified residual protein that simply gets flushed intact out of the body.
What’s critical to note here is that a process that uses an acidic environment to unlock and deliver the iodide has been patented by AAN. Yeah, you can see where this is going.
I made that!
That’s largely the technology angle from the standpoint of delivering the iodide, but, by itself, it doesn’t satisfy the business needs of AAN. They needed a way to identify their product anywhere and to license its use.
They therefore focused on another part of the molecule they designed, attaching a specific marker (I haven’t been able to figure out what it is). Unlike the hidden iodide, this is on a long “tail” of the protein, easily accessible. They picked a configuration not readily found in nature, but, coincidentally, related to one of the many organic materials used in semiconductor processing (largely photoresists). When the two come together, they form a strong bond. The molecular shape is specific enough that the chances that something else other than their engineered molecule will bond to it are below 10 ppm.
Critically, this marker is not removed from the protein in the stomach; the entire molecule can be passed through the urinary system.
From this idea they built a sensor die that largely consists of a window of this material that can capture and hold onto any stray bits of the molecule that it encounters. They’re now on their second version: the first one simply had one large window, acting as a large net, with a single sensing circuit for the whole thing. They found that there was too much noise – the concentration in the actual public water stream will be exceedingly dilute – and redesigned it with an array of small holes that, together, add up to the same area as the original single-big-window version, but with each hole having its own sensor circuit. Each hole can accommodate a single bond, so one molecule captured can generate a strong signal in the sensor, making detection more definitive.
The other tough part of the die was the fact that the seal around the holes has to be tight: this thing is immersed into water, so reliability is harder to achieve. They were able to ease the cost/reliability tradeoffs by making the actual sensor chip simple to replace in the sensor system. That way they could back off on the extreme hermeticity: it became cheap enough (using older processing nodes) that letting water bleed through over time and simply replacing the chip was cheaper than trying to over-engineer the seal.
Again, critically, this detection process – both the concept and the specific implementations – are being patented. The sensor chip will not be made available for sale outside AAN.
So we’ve followed the low-level trail as far as was possible, and what we have is a molecule that can deliver iodide and that can be sensed with an extremely low rate of false positives and false negatives. Backing out, here’s how this is going to be deployed, and I have to say, you’ve got to give these guys credit for chutzpah: they will simply be introducing this stuff at moderately low levels at various river sources high in the mountains; they’ve been experimenting in the Sierra already.
They don’t go to every spring and source, just a few, since the creeks tend to merge long before people start drawing from them. And, in fact, anticipating that there might at some point be some backlash, they’ve kept those points secret. When they have to replace the sources (once every six months or so), they may move it from one place to another, and they send decoy cars up so that activists won’t be able to figure out where the sources are.
What that means is that the water for any communities supplied by those sources will have their iodide delivery molecule in it. And this is where it gets really interesting: because they’ve patented (or are in the process of patenting) the molecule, the process of creating the molecule, the process of releasing the iodide, and the process of detecting either the molecule or the residue, then anyone that wants to do any of that has to get a license from AAN.
And they’re not licensing anyone – with one exception.
- No one can compete with them.
- It’s a license violation for anyone besides them (including the FDA or any water authorities) to attempt to detect their iodide delivery molecule in the water.
- The very act of digesting their molecule exercises a process that they own; if you don’t have a license, then, technically speaking, you are in violation.
- Your urine can be tested as proof that you’ve been drinking water containing their molecule and therefore as proof that you’ve exercised the reaction that they own.
- If you happen across one of their sources while on a hike, you would not be able to prove that it’s a source: doing so would mean identifying the material, which would be a violation.
This seems pretty much like an iron-clad business model. If you drink their water (and, eventually, most all water will be their water), then you owe them money: they will license your ability to digest their water. That’s the only piece they are going to license, and from it comes their revenue stream.
They can test your tap, your reservoir, even your urine; no one else can. If anyone else figures out how to do it and reports which water sources have the iodide molecule in it, they can be sued and shut down for violating the detection patents.
There’s also the question of health: this all assumes that their molecule doesn’t have some unexpected side effect. It’s based on a small tweak to some “normal” protein, so the starting point isn’t too radical. But heck, fructose and glucose are the same except for how their bits are bonded together, and look at how worked up everyone gets over that little change (and one that’s provided by nature). So it’s clear that little changes can cause big concerns.
Problem is, no one can do a study without violating the patents. They say they’ve done their own studies and that there is no problem (although the specific study results are proprietary). It’s said that, at some internal meeting, their fiery founder finally shouted something to the effect of, “We’ve studied this damn thing to death! I say it’s healthy, or my middle name ain’t Oscar. Now let’s ship it!”
So there’s got to be a showdown coming somewhere along the way, since it would seem inevitable that government would try to regulate something being intentionally introduced into the water supply. AAN is already rumored to be hiring lobbyists to keep the government from “stifling innovation,” although, reportedly, the irony hasn’t been lost internally that these same folks would scream bloody murder if the government itself were introducing this stuff into the water supply.
And that’s as far as I have gotten.
I’m going to continue to poke around on this one to see if I find anything else. One of the big problems is that some of the critical patents have largely been approved, but they keep filing continuations and amendments – both to extend the lives of the patents, but also because they chose an option that keeps the details of the patents from being published (which they have to be eventually) until they’re granted, and they’re trying to keep that process going as long as possible so that the details remain secret for as long as possible.
I’d give you a link to go to for more info, but unfortunately, I don’t have one. I assume that, eventually, we will all see this technology surface. It is, after all, pretty big. Just not sure if it’s Icarus big…