Security gates at more than 65 international airports, including Amsterdam’s Schiphol and Paris’s Charles de Gaulle, rely on Cobalt’s machines to scan the contents of our drinks bottles and duty-free shopping to check for explosives.
The machines use technology developed in 2004 by Cobalt’s chief scientific officer, Pavel Matousek, 52, while he was working at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire. Using scientific principles discovered 80 years ago, he designed a laser that could identify the chemical composition of materials in sealed and opaque packages.
Matousek’s research group formed Cobalt in 2008. In 2009 chief executive Paul Loeffen, 48, was recruited to commercialise the technology. He had previously led x-ray instrument firm Oxford Diffraction, which he founded in 2001 and sold for $48m (£32m) in 2008.
Cobalt began selling overseas in 2011, and in addition to airport liquid testing, its machines are used by two-thirds of the world’s top 20 pharmaceutical firms to check the chemical composition of raw materials and manufactured tablets.
Exceptional demand from airports in Europe, Australia and North America propelled international sales to £8.1m in 2014, up an average of 328% a year over the last two years.
The commercial success of its science and engineering was recognised when it was named the 2014 winner of the MacRobert Award by the Royal Academy of Engineering.
This year the company set up its first international outpost, in Washington, to support growth in North and South America. It has also appointed distributors in China and Japan.
From the detection of counterfeit foods to the diagnosis of diseases, Loeffen says the range of potential uses for its technology is huge, and the company has made tentative steps into new arenas, including a recent collaboration with University College London to develop scanning techniques for patients with osteoporosis.
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