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Tech startup: Quicksilver Scientific LLC

While working on his Ph.D. in environmental chemistry at the University of Illinois, Christopher Shade came up with a breakthrough method to analyze samples for mercury contamination. His concept for mercury speciation analysis, the means used for identifying mercury in a sample, has a lower price tag and a broader target than the status quo.

After finishing his dissertation, Shade relocated to Lafayette to launch Quicksilver Scientific in 2005. "We moved out here because it’s a nice place to live," said Shade, noting that geographic location is not very important to the company. "Most people FedEx samples from all over the country, all over the world."

The company now employs five; Shade, 39, serves as president.

"It’s new analytical technology," Shade said of his innovation in mercury speciation analysis. "It’s based on liquid chromatography. You extract the liquid mercury from the samples and turn it into vapor. You can measure under a picogram of mercury."

The traditional method required two tests to identify methyl mercury and inorganic mercury, whereas Shade’s technology handles both with a single test. As opposed to the $300 cost of two tests, "We get methyl and inorganic mercury in one analysis for $150." Better yet, it’s a much more user-friendly method for the chemists. "It’s scalable," Shade said "You can do 50 samples as easily as five."

Quicksilver’s growth curve has gotten steeper and steeper every year. "It’s been growing very well," said Shade, noting one job in 2006 has snowballed into a six-figure business in 2008. "We should start being profitable later this year."

Mercury contamination is a growing issue around the world, but Shade said the future could be worse, in large part due to that icon of the green movement, the compact fluorescent bulb. "A single bulb has two to six milligrams of mercury — each one has the potential to elevate millions of liters of water. It seems they could have waited for the LEDs (light emitting diodes), because that is going to represent a huge influx of mercury into the environment."

"We work with some state agencies, environmental consultants and academic researchers," Shade said. "It’s split pretty evenly. We’re starting to get into clinical analyses as well." With the lower price of his testing, medical organizations can better test biological samples for mercury coming from dental amalgam and food sources. The FDA identified the former as problematic for the first time earlier this year. Oil and gas is another potential market, Shade added.

Shade said the company started with $400,000 of "family" financing, and that he currently is seeking another $300,000 in investment to expand marketing, operational costs and research and development. "We’re working on another round of financing now, primarily from angel investors."

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Eric Peterson

Denver-based writer Eric Peterson is the author of Frommer's Colorado, Frommer's Montana & Wyoming, Frommer's Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks and the Ramble series of guidebooks, featuring first-person travelogues covering everything from atomic landmarks in New Mexico to celebrity gone wrong in Hollywood. Peterson has also recently written about backpacking in Yosemite, cross-country skiing in Yellowstone and downhill skiing in Colorado for such publications as Denver's Westword and The New York Daily News. He can be reached at Eptcb126@msn.com

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