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Winner Spotlight: An Amman Startup That’s Created a Drug-Detection Alternative to Police Dogs

Dena Levitz Headshot

Dena Levitz

Challenge Cup Reporting Fellow, 1776

Drug-sniffing dogs could be losing their jobs. Amman-based startup Digilabrador has devised the world’s first hand-held device able to pinpoint the precise location of illegal drugs. It has the potential to eventually replace canines in scouring airports and other large spaces for the presence of drugs.

The company has been working on the device for four years, applied for a patent to protect its game-changing technology and is now ready to start selling.

Digilabrador also just won the smart cities category of the Challenge Cup in Amman this week.  And the day of the competition the company was one selected to practice its pitch in front of Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan, who came to a few Challenge Cup round table sessions. Cofounder Ashraf Ahmad, an engineer who’s currently a professor at Amman’s Princess Sumaya University for Technology, spoke just after the win about how his startup hopes to lower illegal drug use in the Middle East through better detection.

How does the drug-detection device that you’ve created look and act?

It’s a piece of hardware with a controller, so you can choose the types of substances you are looking for and the device starts scanning and will give you a direction where to go. Then you just follow that direction. Then, after that, the device will keep directing you until you reach the height of where the drugs are.

Explain what drugs this works for.

Marijuana, hashish and Captagon, which is a very famous drug in Jordan. And also heroin. [Together, they’re] the most notorious types of drugs around.

In your pitch you mentioned that it took you and your cofounder, who are both engineers, four years to create the Digilabrador device. What made you want to develop this in the first place and then spend so much time getting such a time-consuming product right?

Actually, what we see in Jordan and in neighboring countries is that the phenomenon of drug addiction is a big problem, and it’s really getting worse. And when we did research about this we found that they use police dogs for this, and it’s really not a good way to detect the drugs. It’s expensive, and it’s not really caching most of these notorious drugs. So we decided to do something about it. We are technology experts and we believe that technology can really make things better for society.

Are drug-sniffing dogs really your only competitor? You seem to be alluding to that with your company’s name.

Yes, that’s true. We decided to name our company Digilabrador because the dogs are our only competitor out there. There’s nothing else like this.  We’re competing with the dogs so we decided, why not name it after them?

Where have you tested the device so far?

We should really salute the police force in Jordan. They’ve helped us by providing us with samples of these drugs. Of course we do all of the experiments inside [their stations] with guarded guys from the agencies in Jordan. They provide us these kinds of testing areas to validate the results of what we’ve done.

The detection device has a 2-kilometer range. How are you able to cover that much ground yet also pinpoint a small area where a stash of drugs would be?

The device is actually a direction device, so the thing is leading you right there. It’ll give you 70 degrees of guidance, say, and then after walking for two or three minutes it’ll recalibrate and tell you to continue in this way. It does all of that within an area of 2 kilometers.

What was the experience of being involved in the Challenge Cup like for you? What did you get out of it?

It was very amazing. To see all of these guys that are competing with you and also to see what is happening in Jordan and in the whole world [with startups].

The queen sat with us and had read about our device, which she loved. So it’s good to see that people are commenting on what we’re doing.

Lastly, you are coming to D.C. in May for the Challenge Festival. Between now and then what changes will you make to your company and product?

Aside from the shape of the device, the product will actually look better. We’re doing the packaging now. Of course, we will be getting our U.S. patent on the product [which they’ve already applied for], so we’re looking forward to that. We’ll be doing sales up until then, and the patent will be a big push for that.

Dena Levitz Headshot

Dena Levitz

Challenge Cup Reporting Fellow, 1776

Dena Levitz is traveling to almost all of the Challenge Cup cities to cover the competition and analyze startup ecosystems around the globe. Dena joins 1776 after finishing the first…