It was while working as a forensic expertin the South African police force that Dr Andrew Nathaniel first conceptualisedthe idea for a product that is now taking the international market by storm.Drawing on his extensive experience in criminal forensic medicine he saw a gapin the market for a quicker, more effective drug test than the traditionalurine test used during police investigations.“In those days we used to take urinesamples from the body and send these to the lab to see if there was anythingdrug related to the crime that the police were investigating, but it took anawfully long time waiting for the results to come back. This delayedinvestigations considerably. In addition, we had to tell the lab which drugs tolook for because testing for drugs is very expensive. All we had to go on wasthe crime scene itself and the victim’s history,” he explained.
Using the ‘rape kit’ model, Nathanielformulated a product called Drug Detective in 1996. The first of its kind inthe world, Drug Detective is an over-the-counter kit that is easy to use anddelivers an instant reliable result in a matter of minutes. “What’s great aboutit is that it doesn’t use urine, blood or saliva samples – all you need is toswab an area using the special tools provided in the kit and they will detectthe most miniscule traces of drugs (nano grams) – all that’s required is tenbillionth of a gram,” he explains. This unique feature has opened up a worldof opportunities for the product. “It means you don’t need to get someone’spermission to take a blood, saliva or urine sample in order to test for drugs.You can test surfaces, eating utensils, cell phones, steering wheels, computerkeyboards, solids, tablets, liquids, powders, resins and clothes – the list isendless,” Nathaniel explains. “Because it’s so simple and so reliable,anyone who can read and follow instructions can use it,” he says. Drug Detective is set apart from othertesting methods because it eliminates the need for special equipment,same-gender sample collectors and complicated training involved in urine andoral testing methods. “The test is also very difficult to adulterate,” explainsNathaniel, “so it provides extremely reliable results.”
With financial investment and input frombusiness partner Andreas Roussos, Nathaniel has been developing Drug Detectivefor the past five years, fine tuning the kit to ensure that it meets, and canadapt to, changing market needs. “I got together with other biotechnologistsand we developed the basic kit which has remained pretty much the same but overtime it has been improved,” says Nathaniel, adding, “We invested a lot of timeand money into the final stages of research and patented the methodology.”
The Drug Detective kit comes with fourcomponents – a tube filled with a special chemical composition that extractsthe drug, a collection tube, a swiper and the device that shows the result.“Drugs obviously come in different forms and the way you use the kit’scomponents differs depending on the form the drug or suspected drug is in. Soyou can conduct surface testing for invisible drugs, or test actual pills,plants, powder or paste to see if they are illegal drugs. A spatula can be usedfor pastes and a swiper sponge for surfaces. Then you apply the chemicalcomposition which extracts the drug and strain the fluid into the collectiontube. The collection tube becomes a dropper and you drop some of the fluid ontothe testing strip. A positive result will show no lines next to the drug,”explains Nathaniel. Each testing strip has a control line toensure that the test has been properly conducted, and can be used to test forcocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine, methodone, opiates and amphetamines.Nathaniel adds that research and development is ongoing: “We can modify the kitto test for different drugs, depending on which ones are most prevalent at aparticular point in time. This means that we can tailor it to the needs ofspecific countries. In South Africa for example marijuana and mandrax arethe big drugs, in other countries the drugs used may be different.”
Accessing& educating the market
Although the product was initiallydeveloped with the law enforcement market in mind, Nathaniel explains that itquickly became clear that other markets existed as well. “The market is massivebecause of the different avenues it can be used in. There are markets inprivate individuals, employers, schools, law enforcement agencies, drugrehabilitation centres, probation centres, airport officials and club and barowners.”
Compared with urine testing, the producthas unique advantages, as Nathaniel explains. “There are many shortfalls inurine testing. It’s easy to falsify a urine test which means that when you takea sample, you have to have an official physically present while the person isurinating. Also, urine testing can’t test for the small amounts of drugs thatDrug Detective can. The product is more sensitive than laboratory machines thatcost millions. In addition, if you are a first time user your body metabolisesdrugs differently to if you are a habitual user – first time users won’texcrete as much of a drug as habitual users, so it might not show a positiveresult in a urine test.” To many, having a unique product might seemlike a recipe for landslide success, but as Nathaniel and Roussos explain, thecompany has had its fair share of challenges when it comes to accessing themarket. “It was precisely because the product wasso new and unique, that we struggled at first. The public didn’t know thatsomething like this existed so they didn’t know to ask for it, even though itis sold over the counter and listed in pharmacies,” says Nathaniel.
Roussos adds: “Urine testing has been usedfor a long time in law enforcement. It’s what people know and initially wefound that there was some resistance to change. But all that meant was that wehad to invest time and energy educating people about the product and getting itendorsed by external independent experts.” An important endorsement is the onerecently received from the Department of Education. “Drugs are becoming anincreasing problem in schools and educators need to try and stem not only theuse but the dealing of drugs as well,” says Roussos. The Department ofEducation was so interested in the product and how it can be used to achievethis goal that the Minister of Education recently gazetted it for use in SouthAfrican schools.” Nathaniel explains, “We also had to keepdriving home the reasons why the product was unique and better than traditionalurine testing methods – that it was non-invasive, didn’t need a sample from aperson and could be used to test surfaces, not just people, which means you cantarget drug dealers who don’t use, as well as drug users themselves.”
There have been distribution challenges aswell. “Initially we got a distributor in Cape Town but that didn’t work as we’dhoped. There were problems with promotion and where the product was pitched, sowe looked abroad. The market for this product is enormous in the US so it madesense for us to partner with a distributor there,” says Roussos. By a stroke of good fortune, Drug Detectivewas approached by just such a distributor in 2007 who had seen the product onthe internet. “Our US distributor is signed up to distribute to the entireNorth America and most of Europe. We supply him with the product but eventuallythe idea is to produce it in the United States. “Based on the market research conducted bythis distributor, he indicates that he expects to do millions of dollars worthof turnover selling this product,” says Roussos. The distributor recentlyreturned from a trip promoting Drug Detective to the US military where itreceived a very positive reception. “The US departments have huge budgets whichopen up many more opportunities than those that exist locally,” he says. On the point of the local market, he adds,“Back in South Africa it’s been more difficult to break into the market but theproduct is currently being used by the police, the metro police, dog units andSars, amongst others. And we’ve had enquiries from various courier companieswho want to know if people are using their services to send sealed parcels ofnarcotics.”
Lookingto the future
The reception in the United States has beenvery promising and Drug Detective has tapped into a lucrative overseas exportmarket. Nathaniel and Roussos point out that the US market for Point-Of-Care‘drugs of abuse’ screening products, including the hospital and industrialsegments, totalled $110 million in 2000 and is forecasted to grow to $146million by 2006. “We’ve also had enquiries from many Arabcountries which can open up opportunities in the Middle East and possiblyAfrica as well,” says Roussos. “Ultimately we want to sell theintellectual property but that’s only down the line once we’ve established themarket,” he says.
Howto protect your invention
Who should register a patent? Anyone whohas created something new, inventive and useful. A patent should only be registered when the invention has been researched andconceptualised. The procedure to register a patent is: Filea provisional application for a patent, valid for 12 months in South Africa andover 160 foreign countries. Then, file a complete patent application within 12months of the provisional application in South Africa. Apply for patents ineach country where you wish to obtain patent protection. What is the timeframe from application toregistration? Up to 10 months. You need to publish the patent in the PatentsJournal. If after three months there are no objections, the Patents Registrarwill issue a Patent Certificate.What does it cost? A provisional patentapplication costs between R7 000 and R15 000. A complete application costs fromR10 000 to R20 000. Protection is usually granted for 20 years.