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Boston-Based Silverside Detectors Brings ‘Special Sauce’ to Nuclear Bomb Detection

Peter Lougee

Energy Columnist, 1776

In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the specter of nuclear terrorism loomed large in the minds of citizens and government officials alike. Thinking the supply of extant Helium-3 nuclear bomb detectors sufficient, the United States government began buying and deploying the technology in bulk. Within a few years, a shortage was discovered and the costs skyrocketed.

That’s where Andrew Inglis and Sarah Haig come in. Inglis holds a Ph.D in physics from Boston University, and Haig holds a Masters of public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Together, they founded Silverside Detectors, a startup with the goal of reducing or eliminating the threat of nuclear weapons.

How? By bringing a network of modern nuclear-bomb detectors into the market in a form that can be adapted to the variety of needs that will arise within the United States and global community.  By designing the next generation of nuclear bomb detectors with policy requirements in mind first, Silverside Detectors aims to be at the forefront of national security efforts.

Silverside Detectors took home the regional prize in the smart cities category at Boston’s Challenge Cup competition and will advance to compete in the Challenge Cup Festival in Washington, D.C. in May. 

A physicist and a public policy expert—how’d you guys meet and decide to start a company?

Inglis: We actually were introduced through a mutual friend. I was building radiation detectors as part of a post-doc, and Sarah has a background in national security and finished her MPP when we met.

Haig: Andrew and I also connected through a start-up accelerator program. It really became a perfect confluence of interest. What we have is two brains approaching the problem of nuclear threat reduction that are trained very differently but are united in their motivation. It turned out that is a great combination.

Well, congratulations on winning the Boston Challenge Cup! I have to ask, why nuclear bomb detectors? It’s not your average startup venture.

Inglis: The boring answer is that I’m a physicist and have done work that involved radiation detection, and I thought this background would help out in this field. The more complicated answer is that we come from backgrounds of national security and physics, and so we understand the history of the world in which nuclear weapons reside as best we can from two angles: the science and the politics. We really see nuclear weapons as one of the key drivers in the political and military arena. They motivate a lot of discussion at a national and international level. We wanted to create a company that helps  nuclear weapons not to be such a deciding and motivating factor, as best as we can—to eradicate nuclear weapons as one of the major influences of our policies and to create a more peaceful world.

We’ve been making radiation detectors in physics for various things for a long time now; why not apply this to nuclear weapons? Even in the most reserved corner of dark matter laboratories, radiation detection and the issue of nuclear weapons can consume the entire field. I turned my attention to it, and intellectual curiosity led me to learn as much as possible. As a physicist I had to try to help, and to take the best thoughts of my field and apply them to this problem.

Haig: In terms of the scale of impact Silverside can have on security practices, we have chosen one of the biggest ones there is. The biggest threat out there is a nuclear terrorist attack in terms of lives and economic damage. 

What would you say is the mission statement of Silverside Detectors?

Inglis: To equip governments with technology to secure their citizens from nuclear terrorism.

What are the problems you are seeking to address in the current state of nuclear bomb detectors?

Inglis: Everyone wants efficient detectors, but efficient detectors are usually very large, in order to capture as much radiation as possible. After September 11, the government—to their credit—rapidly leveraged the current technology of Helium-3 neutron detectors and gamma ray detectors used in scrap metal yard screening and bought as many as possible. The government put those detectors in as many border crossings as they could. It was the beginning of national-level thinking of how best to use our resources to address the looming problem of nuclear terrorism.

There’s a big problem though, because between both the Helium-3 and scrap yard detectors, there are only about 3,000 deployed. And additional detectors of this type are also cost-prohibitive beyond these current deployments. At a national level, we really need a much larger footprint of nuclear detectors, covering transit networks, storage sites, borders, airports, high-value targets, and so on. So the problem is that we need something both cheap and available. As a company, Silverside needs to make the cheapest, most effective detector possible.

How do you solve these problems?

Haig: Well, there are 50 solutions and companies vying for this space already, many of them engineering variations on existing technology. Silverside keeps best practices and relevant policies in mind before the devices are built.

Inglis: This “special sauce” is what we are bringing to the market. We are a company that creates new detectors for the large scale problems that actually exist, and not re-tool something into a more specialized solution. You can’t achieve the scale needed that way.

With the federal budget as it is, we have to face the realities of economics with any device we build. We also have to stop the ‘first event’ from ever happening, even as such an event would increase budgets. Therefore Silverside is building the technology from the ground up, and has to increase the order of magnitude by ten if not one hundred times to get the cost down for budget realities.

I’ll give you two examples of how Silverside can accomplish this. First, our detector uses enriched lithium, which  U.S. national laboratories recycle from dismantled nuclear weapons, and which the battery industry has learned to inexpensively process into usable form factors. Second, nuclear detection technology is such that any amount of dust or grime can have a huge adverse effect on how well a detector works. The current standard is a relatively expensive chamber housing that uses stainless steel tubes. But Silverside has found that the double paneled window industry has figured out how to create the same clean environment needed between two panes of glass. We’re using the clean environment the window industry makes cheaply and build the detector inside of it.

What benefits will Silverside Detectors bring to the market?

Haig: The benefit Silverside brings is the ambition of our mission, and our unique backgrounds and connections to make it happen. Take for example the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit that is coming up. Silverside is looking at what technology will be needed to support the political resolutions that are reached—and affordability is a huge issue here. Existing neutron detectors are nearly unaffordable to the U.S., never mind African or Middle Eastern nations. Technology is a critical support and enforcement element for all agreements that will made at the Summit and others like it, and it is a great opportunity we have to tie the Silverside’s product to the policy development that could come out of the Summit. We have connections through think tanks and government agencies, and we want to be part of nuclear threat reduction across the world.

Inglis: Talking about the implementation side for a minute: any real solution will require tens to hundreds of thousands of detectors at all different sizes—everything from belt sized, to back packs sized, to the size of trucks, all discreet and all networked together and figuring out if there is a moving threat of nuclear material. The technology of such a connected device network didn’t even exist in 2001, and applying this networking to larger numbers or lower cost detectors puts Silverside at the forefront of detection efforts.

You mentioned connections to think tanks and government agencies, and I was told you were working on a grant from DHS, can you tell me anything about that?

Inglis: Well, Silverside has contacts within a few agencies by nature of our work. Whether it was grant work or some other connection, we’ve dealt with the Department of Homeland Security’s Securing the Cities program, other offices within the DHS Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, and the Department of Energy’s Second Lind of Defense program within the National Nuclear Security Administration. Not sure if we can really say anything further, can we Sarah?

Haig: Not really, but those are the agencies where responsibility and budgetary authority reside. There are a lot of places within the federal government where people have responsibilities to reduce nuclear terrorism, but DNDO and SLD are the locations of budgetary authority and availability, and have also have the job of actually deploying nuclear detectors.

Inglis: There is a legitimate movement within the government to continually push for best practices when it comes to nuclear threat reduction, and it is nice to be able to interact with these agencies to discuss their current needs.

What about Boston made you want to locate Silverside Detectors there?

Inglis: It’s a good question….we’re not really sure where the real location and central hub of the business will eventually be, actually. There are considerations such as manufacturing and R&D for initial devices, and where those facilities will be—and some of them are in the Boston area. But also, we’re Bostonians! This is our home! The Mass Challenge Incubator was also one of the main decisions to stay in Boston.

Haig: There are quite a lot of companies in the New England area and even Canada, like Toronto, that are good connections for young startups, and we’re only a year old so that culture is nice. Boston is also a smaller city, so we have links to the ports and government agencies that we can draw upon as we grow the company and want to test our product.

Wait, I didn’t realize Silverside Detectors was only one year old. You’re already talking prototypes, manufacturing chains and final products?

Inglis: By design, through the DHS grant, I needed a plan to design and manufacture product within a reasonable timeframe. So in about a year or year and a half, we are looking at having a product fully developed and ready to be deployed. And having prototypes tested in Boston city environments prior to that. After that, we want to rapidly scale up to reach the economy of scale needed to bring this kind of solution not only to the United States but the world.

Can you tell me a little about the experience of being in the 1776 Challenge Cup?

Haig: We had a great time! When 1776 reached out and invited us to participate, our initial gut reaction was honestly, “No way, someone is looking at startups engaging in the policy space!” A lot of Boston startups are tackling really interesting tech issues, but not as much the larger scale policy questions and issues 1776 seems to want to help tackle. Once we started interacting with 1776, it was very clear that they are out to help companies like us that are out to make big changes.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Inglis: Well, even though we are a young company in the startup community we think a little differently than most startups due to the regulated spaces and policies we are dealing with when it comes to nuclear bomb detection. Getting the resources for our mission is getting down to the brass tacks of: what are we doing to show off our technology and prove ourselves?

Our model is to bring our vantage point and ability of building policy-based technology from ground up—and doing it efficiently and quickly—then moving on to other technologies and solutions with similar models. But we’re starting with a core technology that we hope is a bedrock for detection systems far into the future.

Haig: The opportunity of being a startup, we can talk to a lot of people in the policy field and democratize the issue and a solution to terrorism. That is honestly amazing. I can talk to people about what we’re doing that aren’t physicists and they get actually excited! The fact that we get to invite people into discussion about the potential solutions to nuclear threat reduction has been a great experience.

Peter Lougee

Energy Columnist, 1776

Peter is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer with a Master's Degree in Public Policy from American University. In addition to startups, Peter likes coffee, books and whiskey.