Wired In: Alexander Scheeline

Wired In: Alexander Scheeline

On Sundays, staff writer Paul Wood spotlights a high-tech difference maker. This week, University of Illinois Professor Emeritus Alexander Scheeline, 64. He's the president of SpectroClick Inc. and a music lover in his spare time. The company makes educational tools and a handheld instrument that identifies different chemicals. There will be a cell phone version that would allow anyone to analyze anything from farm chemicals to the drinking water — the tools are meant to be used by the average person.

Who's on the team?

Our CEO is Stephen Zahos, another faculty member. We now have a lab director, Serena Hou, with two degrees from here. My wife Alice Berkson does the books and educational work. Bui Anh Thu, "Annie," who helped invent this, is not part of the company, but she consults from Vietnam.

What is the company's goal?

The goal is to make every human being his or her own analytic chemist. Think of these poor folks up in Flint, Mich., looking for lead in their water. Would you trust the government? Wouldn't you rather have a test kit from us?

How did all this start?

In 2006, the Vietnam National University of Science in Hanoi approached the UI department of chemistry to ask if we would help them upgrade their teaching from what was left after the French and the Russians. They could have gone to anywhere in the world, but they came to us. In 2007, Professor Patricia Shapley said, "you'll never guess where I've just been. You wouldn't happen to know anybody who'd like to go over there and teach quantitative analysis, would you?" In nanoseconds, I said, "sure, let's give it a go." This class was spectacularly bright. It was utterly exhausting and utterly exhilarating. Three of the students are in the process of getting Ph.D.s here or are already done.

How did this lead to your innovation?

I helped them to build a spectrometer. They had digital cameras, so I would write a piece of software where they could process their data. "Annie" invented a device, and I created the software. The patent was granted in November 2014. It's owned by the UI, and SpectroClick has an exclusive license.

What are your markets?

First, agriculture, where you have people able to walk around and spot standing water, wonder if it's got too much fertilizer, or not enough fertilizer, or contaminants. They'll be able to answer it without having to be trained in chemistry in advance. The education market is a major one; these things are sufficiently inexpensive that universities and high schools can afford to buy them for every student. That makes it more hands-on. We also have designs on industrial markets and forensic markets.

How long before you turn a profit?

We hope to be cash-flow-positive in 2017 or 2018.

Do you have some hobbies when you're not working?

I like popular music from 1890 to the 1920s. We just celebrated the 100th birthday of my upright piano. I love ragtime and other popular music of the era. My favorite song is from 1919, "Give Me The Old Sultan's Harem," a send-up on the Versailles Peace Conference.

Favorite social media? I have Facebook and Twitter accounts. I rarely use the Twitter account, but Facebook is a way to keep in touch with the folks in Vietnam.

Books or Kindle? I have Kindle software on my tablet.

What are you reading right now? A book by Siddhartha Mukherjee, "The Gene: An Intimate History."

Wearable electronics? This Casio watch has a receiver on it that synchronizes with atomic time. It's solar powered, so I'll never have to buy a battery again. It's got a barometer built in.