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April 09, 2012 | Tom Ballard

Vaigneur sees LABRADOR as path to expanded operations

The sole owner of a company that was created as an engineering design services firm 14 years ago has licensed technology from Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) with plans that could significantly expand his operation.

Keith Vaigneur is President of Agile Technologies, an 18-employee firm located at the end of a short street off Dutchtown Road in West Knoxville. The Tennessee Technological University graduate was working in Greenville, SC when he moved to Knoxville in 1985 for a position with Panasonic. Vaigneur joined CTI five years later and founded the company as Agile Engineering in 1998.

“I knew that I wanted to be in business for myself,” Vaigneur said in a recent interview with One of his first customers was a new start-up named ImTek, founded by two ORNL researchers – Shaun Gleason and Mike Paulus. Ironically, when Vaigneur executed the license for ORNL’s LABRADOR technology more than a decade later, the person who signed the agreement for ORNL was Paulus who rejoined the lab in late 2009 as Director of Technology Transfer.

Vaigneur explains that ImTek had a bench top technology for small animal imaging that Paulus and Gleason wanted to turn into a product. Their need for a mechanical design for the product fit Agile’s space. Later, when ImTek needed someone to manufacture the crystal arrays, Vaigneur’s firm accepted the challenge, a decision that “started a slow movement from design services to manufacturing.”

“We have 100 percent of a small market,” Vaigneur said, explaining that Agile is the only firm that manufactures high resolution imaging hardware for PET and CT imaging.

Over the years, Vaigneur said that Agile has “grown the technology business substantially. We are not just supplying the arrays, but we are now integrating them into detectors.” All of this work involves radiological detectors, and Vaigneur said that he asked himself if Agile “could get in the chemical detector business.”

“We recognized that we were limited in scope with just high resolution PET detectors,” he said. When he became aware of the LABRADOR technology, he recognized this could be the first step in a broadening of Agile’s portfolio.

LABRADOR, which stands for Lightweight Analyzer for Buried Remains and Decomposition Odor Recognition, is a handheld device, similar in appearance to a metal detector, that features an array of metal oxide sensors optimized for the detection of volatile chemicals known to be present during various stages of human decomposition. It was developed by Dr. Arpad Vass, a senior researcher at ORNL and an adjunct research professor at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. LABRADOR has been used in the past in several high profile cases as law enforcement agencies searched for the remains of individuals.

While Vaigneur readily admits that forensics is not his or Agile’s core area of expertise, it is clear that he has applied an engineer’s analytical skills to this business opportunity. “We think the technology is solid, but we don’t think it will replace a cadaver dog,” he said. He believes that the two can work together in a complementary fashion. “Dogs cannot quantify an odor, Vaigneur said, adding that “we plan to incorporate a ground penetration capability in LABRADOR to test soils at the surface and below.”

He also believes that “Arpad developed a great technology, but one that required too much operator expertise.” This could be a particular challenge in deploying LABRADOR detectors globally for use by the military, law enforcement and disaster recovery teams.

Vaigneur’s solution is two-fold – adding telemetry or global positioning system (GPS) capability to each detector and feeding the raw data back to a network operations center where experts like Vass can interpret the information. This strategy could result in Agile becoming a service provider and could lead to detectors being deployed in a manner other than just purchasing. It would also establish a strong historical database that could improve the effectiveness of the searches over time.

“We don’t need to invent anything. We need to integrate other capabilities,” Vaigneur said.

He also is mindful of one of the perils of small companies – losing focus.

“Delivering a solution to a hospital is much different than delivering a solution to law enforcement even though the technologies are complementary,” he said.

Even as Vaigneur works to rollout the new offering, he’s looking at other technology-based opportunities. These present business scaling challenges, but it appears that he relishes those opportunities at this stage in his career.

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