When a shipment of pharmaceutical excipients arrives at the warehouse, quality assurance personnel have a decision to make. They can open the containers and send ingredients to the lab for mid-infrared, near-infrared, or Raman spectroscopy, or they can perform nondestructive analysis on the spot, without opening the containers, using portable or handheld Raman spectroscopy solutions. Increasingly, in more than 120 countries, manufacturers are choosing the latter.
The light absorption of infrared-based spectroscopy gives stronger and more robust signals than the scattering measured by Raman spectroscopy, making it a more attractive analysis technique for some purposes. However, Raman is far more versatile. Sample preparation for infrared is necessarily destructive, whereas that for Raman isn’t. The state of the samples themselves is also less restricted for Raman, which can, unlike infrared, identify gaseous and aqueous substrates. One of the predominant drawbacks to Raman spectroscopy to date, though, has been the size and expense of the equipment. Recent advances are removing that barrier.
“Raman spectroscopy has moved from the lab to the field,” says Katherine Bakeev, PhD, B&W Tek’s director of marketing and customer development. B&W Tek, with its focus on portable and handheld Raman instruments, is a large part of that transition.
“Coming up with small instruments has always been our bailiwick,” Bakeev tells GEN. “We have people using our handheld and portable instruments for art restoration in caves and cathedrals, and physicians in the clinic are using them for quick cancer cell screenings.” The company is also making its mark in pharmaceutical manufacturing. The reason, she explains, is that Raman spectroscopy provides nondestructive testing and eliminates the risk of contamination caused by opening pharmaceutical ingredients in nonsterile environments.
Notable Raman instruments
B&W Tek is rarely in the news and dislikes tooting its own horn, but it has developed some important advances in spectroscopy. For example, the STRam® was awarded “Silver Honoree” in the annual Laser Focus World Innovators Awards Program. This Raman spectrometer is unusual because it lets users see through opaque barriers—such as tablet coatings, white plastic bags, and bottles—that Raman spectroscopy otherwise cannot penetrate. As a 785-nm wavelength portable device, it is designed for raw material identification, logistics and customs inspections, forensic analysis, and material science research.
One of the newest devices, the handheld NanoRam®-1064, puts Raman spectroscopy directly in the field, where it is used for quality control, at-line sampling, and anticounterfeiting testing. Introduced in March 2019, it features a 1064-nm wavelength to analyze a broader range of samples, allowing on-the-spot analysis of active pharmaceutical ingredients, intermediates, and excipients through clear or opaque glass or plastic. Later this year, analysis through other opaque materials will be possible, Bakeev notes. Because the instrument minimizes fluorescence, it can identify colored samples and natural products, as well as distinguish various types of cellulose and polysorbate, and film coating materials, according to company literature.
Specifically for pharmaceutical developers, B&W Tek introduced a QTRam® (quantitative transmission) instrument, which is used to test the quality of samples, particularly in the current process analytical technology (PAT) environment. For example, Bakeev asserts, “when you make a solid dosage form, QTRam lets the laser penetrate through it, so you get a pretty representative analysis.”
Hardware is only one part of any solution, of course. Each instrument can access a library of spectra that can be customized for special needs. “In the safety and security market, the TacticID®-GP and TacticID-1064 come with a library of spectra for first responders,” Bakeev elaborates. “Some regions of the world have very specific interests, so we customize the library. We add their specific compounds of interest, listed in the local language and by their common names.”
From OEM to full solutions provider
Today, B&W Tek offers comprehensive solutions that incorporate spectroscopy and laser technology. For example, the company provides Raman, laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy, and near-infrared systems for commercial and academic labs and field use. But it didn’t start this way.
At its founding in 1997, B&W Tek was an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) developing specialized diode and diode-pumped solid-state (DPSS) lasers. That it shipped 10,000 DPSS lasers throughout the world in its first five years signaled it had tapped a significant unmet need.
In 2000, founder Sean Wang, PhD, brought on Jack Zhou, PhD, as CEO and began developing the company’s spectroscopy division. B&W Tek’s entry into this market effectively doubled the number of Raman spectrometers in use throughout the world by 2006, when 10,000 of those instruments carried B&W Tek nameplates, states Bakeev. “That’s more than most other companies [have shipped],” she insists.
The Raman spectroscopy market looks bright. It was valued at $1.5 billion in 2018 by BCC Research, which estimates that since then, the market has been growing at a compound annual growth rate of 8.9%, putting it on track to reach $2.3 billion by 2023. B&W Tek has positioned itself to respond to this growth. The company has established sites in five countries: the United States, China, Germany, Taiwan, and Japan.
While the company developed its own instrument lines, it continued as an OEM provider of laser components and spectrometers. Today, it provides a soup-to-nuts course of hardware, software, libraries, service, and custom application development.
Innovation rarely occurs in a vacuum, of course. Since B&W Tek’s founding, laptop computers have become ubiquitous and cell phones have become smart. The trend toward lightweight, handheld instruments is undeniable. In response, the company launched its first handheld instrument, the NanoRam, in 2012.
As the company evolved from an OEM to a full solutions provider, it built a global distribution network. “It’s always a challenge transitioning from building components to building final systems,” Bakeev acknowledges.
That network and B&W Tek’s position as a leading manufacturer of Raman spectroscopy solutions were behind the company’s July 2018 acquisition by Swiss Metrohm. The details are confidential, but a press statement indicates that B&W Tek will operate under its own brand for a time before it is gradually integrated into Metrohm, which looks forward to building a comprehensive product line.
The acquisition expands B&W Tek’s reach. The company is now are working in 120 countries and using not only its own channels, but also select subsidiaries of Metrohm to distribute a full line of B&W Tek products. “There’s a certain synergy,” Bakeev says. “We are a critical part of Metrohm.”
Staying on top of the options
As B&W Tek expanded from its OEM origins, it emphasized strong vertical integration. “When we make our software and hardware, we have control over the entire process. We know each component intimately,” Bakeev declares. “That also allows us the versatility to make design changes quickly and efficiently.” This versatility enables the company to better address users’ specific needs.
“Innovating isn’t just about the technology, but also about how to package and present information to users to ensure they get what they want,” Bakeev points out. That means educating potential buyers about the capabilities and limitations of different wavelengths of lasers and various equipment designs to ensure that the instrument they choose is right for the job and performs as hoped.
To that end, the company offers a series of webinars and other resources. One webinar, for example, focuses on selecting a Raman instrument to identify counterfeit drugs in the field. This lets customs and drug interdiction agents test suspect substances and get accurate, prompt results without sending samples out to a lab.
Bakeev says B&W Tek’s mission is to bring total solutions to its customers in commercial, research, and academic labs. The acquisition by Metrohm isn’t expected to change that, as the company continues to add capabilities to its products.
Location: 19 Shea Way, Newark, DE 19713
Principal: Jack Zhou, PhD, CEO
Number of Employees: 150
Focus: B&W Tek is an instrumentation company specializing in Raman spectroscopy, with expertise in photonics, spectrometers, lasers, and chemometric technologies.