"A penny for your thoughts" takes on a whole new meaning at Quantum Applied Science and Research Inc.
The Sorrento Mesa company, known as Quasar for short, is developing sensors the size of small coins that can be placed next to someone's head to detect brain waves.
The penny-sized sensors can also go next to someone's chest to study the person's heartbeat.
Quasar has two sister companies: Quasar Federal Systems and Electronic BioSciences LLC. The three companies employ 60 people. Combined revenue for the privately held companies was $4 million in fiscal 2005 and $10 million in fiscal 2006.
Quasar and the sister companies work with systems that measure low-frequency electromagnetic waves, then harness that technology for a variety of uses.
Nearly everything is in the research-and-development stage, and much has been developed with federal money, including Pentagon funds.
Founded in 1998, Quasar didn't set out to design medical devices.
Robert Matthews, president of Quasar, recalled the day when a company technician was calibrating some sensitive electronics meant to find hidden underground structures. He noticed a "rhythmic interference."
It was the technician's heartbeat.
With some more work, the Quasar team had come up with a machine that rivaled a standard-issue electrocardiogram, or EKG, machine.
It was "serendipitous," Matthews said.
Since then, Quasar has received two contracts from the National Institutes of Health to fund development of its cardiac sensing system. It has already subjected the system to clinical trials at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
While the data obtained is nearly identical to that received from a conventional electrocardiogram , there is a 99 percent correlation, Matthews said , the process skips the step where technicians glue sensors to a person's skin. Here, sensors need to be only in the proximity of the heart.
So sensors might be sewn into a shirt. Or into the fabric of a gurney. Sensors without glue may also be useful with burn victims, or for long-term use, said company officials.
What's more, they could combat a person's natural tendency to be lazy.
"Human compliance is extremely important in medical monitoring," said Matthews. So if a doctor orders a patient to measure his heart rate every day, the person might not have the discipline to follow through. However, sensors in the patient's favorite chair would make such monitoring nearly effortless.
An Army program to develop a uniform of the future steered Pentagon money to Quasar's sensor effort. Sensors are wired with low-noise electronics and low-power radios, which beam sensor data to a monitoring station.
Quasar officials say their sensors might also work well in a soldier's helmet, to measure brain function.
The sensors might measure a soldier's level of attention, telling a commander whether he is engaged or fatigued.
Company officials said the technology might help a commander determine whether the person could easily take in more data, or whether he was overloaded with information.
In addition to Pentagon funds, Quasar and its sister companies receive money from the Department of Energy, the National Institutes of Health, and the Technical Support Working Group. The latter helps multiple federal agencies deal with terrorist threats.
The company also receives money from universities and other federal contractors.
Matthews, 41, has a background in ultra-low-noise instrumentation. While in his native Australia, he applied his physics background to mining, developing new ways to find bodies of ore.
He has been in the United States for a dozen years, working in land mine detection as well as medical applications. The gratifying thing about both efforts, he said, is they let him "really help people."
The federal systems arm harnesses low-frequency sensing systems for a variety of tasks, such as finding secret underground structures and detecting lightning strikes. In a joint project with the UC Berkeley Space Laboratory, the company is working on electrical gear to find what's under the surface of Mars.
A weapons detection effort is a remnant of Quantum Magnetics, a San Diego business acquired by General Electric Co. in late 2004.
The Electronic BioSciences arm uses the technology to measure biological processes on a very small scale.