From Water Pollution to Cannabis Testing: Traverse City's SampleServe Automates Environmental Survey Data
By Laura Cowan
Laura K. Cowan is a tech editor and journalist whose work has focused on promoting sustainability initiatives for automotive, green tech, and conscious living media outlets.
Environmental Sampling Goes Digital
Russell Schindler is the head of TCNewTech in Traverse City, which at 1600 members averages 200 people per meeting. He's also the CEO and founder of a company called SampleServe that uses technology to update the antiquated but crucial process of environmental sampling, from municipal water supply testing to cannabis. It sounds simple, and some of the technology is, but, Schindler tells us, the state of Michigan updated the standards for environmental sampling of soil, water, and the like, a number of years ago, and all of a sudden, it became much harder for companies to not only purchase specialized equipment required to conduct their sampling, but also to process all the data. SampleServe was born.
"We started as a company that specialized in sampling," Schindler says. "In 2001, the state changed regulations that required a different kind of sampling, which was more labor intensive and required specialized equipment a lot of environmental companies weren't familiar with, and it caught a lot of people off guard. In 2001 the internet wasn't like it is today so there were a lot of paper copies of the rules. I was ahead of the curve and learned how to do the sampling, had the equipment, and realized there's an opportunity to do sampling for other companies."
The business model was sampling as a service, but we took those graphs and realized we could do other reports like ground water contour maps.
Pivoting To A Software Company
Schindler says he started SampleServe to specialize in these kind of samplings and started SampleServe.com and told clients he could do sampling for them and put data online and put it in tables and graphs for them. "The business model was sampling as a service," he says, "but we took those graphs and realized we could do other reports like ground water contour maps. The reporting side kept evolving and got better, so our sales pitch was hire us to do your sampling and you get all these reporting products included no charge."
But then he found out the business model wasn't quite what he expected. "I was at a big engineering company in Detroit around 2009, and went in to convince them to hire me to do some of their sampling. I showed them our software, and they were really interested. At the end of the meeting they said, 'We're not going to hire you to do our sampling, that's how we make money, but your software is cool. Can we use that?'" At the time, SampleServe's online database wasn't configured for the privacy of data required for other companies to log in to the website, but Schindler made the decision to fix that and to pivot to being a software company instead of a sampling company.
All Digital Data Processing In the Field
"The game changer around 2010 was mobile apps and devices," Schindler adds. "Being able to use mobile device in the field that communicates directly to the cloud changed everything [with the first iPhone], then we got 2 digital chain of custody patents."
What does that mean for a sampling company? "When you collect a sample it's treated like evidence," Schindler says, "so you have to show chain of custody from the field all the way to the laboratory, you have to show custody of who is handling it. It's always been done on paper. One of the problems with people doing data collection with a mobile device is that it has to be all paper or all digital, so we came up with a way to make it purely digital and got a patent for that technology. We communicate with a portable Bluetooth thermal label printer in the field and then it's all digital chain of custody from then on."
When you collect a sample it's treated like evidence, so you have to show chain of custody from the field all the way to the laboratory, you have to show custody of who is handling it.
Michigan Groundwater Pollution & Cannabis Sampling
SampleServe started out doing groundwater sampling, but the company has expanded to several industries. "People who are not in our [line of work] see it as all in the same industry, but it's separate people doing different types of work," Schindler explains. "The other media we sample is municipal drinking water. Every municipality has to test continuously. Flint tested hundreds of thousands of samples to figure out where the lead was coming from and whether what they're doing is working. Even a so-called normal city like Ann Arbor collects 14,000-18,000 samples every month. We just launched a beta of a municipal drinking water app. It's available on Google playstore." SampleServe's field app can also be found on the company's website, along with the option to purchase field equipment such as the label printers.
Every municipality has to test continuously. Flint tested hundreds of thousands of samples to figure out where the lead [in the water] was coming from and whether what they're doing is working.
"One of the other medias we're launching in March is cannabis sampling," Schindler says. "There's all kinds of testing required for cannabis and cannabis products. Those tests require strict chain of custody, and our chain of custody process is perfect for that. If people want to try the app it's free. What we do charge for is the reports we produce. The free version will help people print labels for samples in the field and record data, but if you want the reporting side that's what we charge for access to."
Forensic Applications, Labeling & The Laboratory App
What other industries could this tech support? "We believe there is other media like asbestos and air sampling such as indoor air quality issues, and I think there's even an application in criminal forensics collecting evidence for this because evidence requires a strict chain of custody as well," Schindler tells us. "If you think of the OJ Simpson trial, what they really attacked was the handling of the blood evidence."
So how does all of this work in the field? "People are collecting samples in the field and shipping to a laboratory," Schindler says, "so we had to create a mechanism for labs to receive the data. We created a lab app for labs that's also free. The labels come out with a barcode for the side of the sample bottle, and a QR code label that's often put on the lid of the bottles. So when samples arrive at laboratory, all lids facing up, they can log in hundreds of samples in just a few seconds by taking mobile device and scanning lids in a matter of seconds. A typical cooler full of samples that might arrive at a lab might typically take 30 minutes to log in and record and type in manually, because most labels historically were handwritten. We've taken their login process from 30 min to 10 seconds. No more typos and not being able to read somebody's writing," says Schindler.
The labels come out with a barcode for the side of the sample bottle, and a QR code label that's often put on the lid of the bottles. So when samples arrive at laboratory, all lids facing up, they can log in hundreds of samples in just a few seconds.
Connecting With Traverse City's Growing Tech Community
Courtesy photo from TC NewTech of the Traverse City NewTech meetup at the City Opera House in Traverse City, Michigan.
If you'd like to know more about the SampleServe process for use in your business, you can learn more from the numerous videos on the SampleServe website or their how-tos. Or, you can meet Schindler in person at TCNewTech in Traverse City. The next TCNewTech is Tuesday February 4th at 6 pm at the Traverse City City Opera House.
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