Metro

THOMAS FARRAGHER

Somerville startup building atomic bomb detectors

When the Duke Blue Devils tip off against the Spartans of Michigan State in Indianapolis on Saturday, it’s easy to imagine Sarah Haig hanging out by the guacamole dip at some flat-screen Final Four party, rooting on her North Carolina-based alma mater.

You almost pity the poor soul who, unsuspectingly, reaches for a beer, checks his brackets, and then casually asks her what she does for a living.

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The possible answers are show-stoppers. I build atomic bomb detectors. I’m fighting nuclear terrorism. I’m saving the world. And what is it that you do?

“I can never anticipate the follow-up questions,’’ Haig said. “If it’s a physicist they’re going to say, ‘What kind of nuclear bomb detector do you build?’ And then I get into the details. If it’s my grandmother, she’ll say, ‘Why do we need these?’ ”

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From her incubator space in Somerville, Haig and her business partner, Andrew Inglis, are working hard to bring to market atomic bomb detectors for use in the United States and abroad.

“We’re in Act II of a Shakespearean five-act play,’’ she said.

Haig and Inglis are the principals at an entrepreneurial venture called Silverside Detectors, which operates out of space formerly that of Ames Safety Envelope Company, once Somerville’s largest employer. Those 33,000 square feet of what had been industrial space have been transformed into something akin to a fantasy factory for Silverside and some 40 other startups.

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In the lab space where Haig and Inglis are breathing life into their nuclear detectors, their business-world soul mates are also building the next generation of 3D printers, or perfecting robots that can inspect hundreds of miles of railroad tracks for imperfections. One firm is building the first fully functioning airborne wind turbine. Another is developing a solar-powered milk chiller for use in rural India.

“These are companies that come to us with a vision or a dream and they have an idea of what they want to do to make an impact on the world,’’ explains Emily Reichert, who is the executive director of the umbrella firm for the startups. “It’s an amazing feeling to be in the room and to be a part of all of that.’’

The 34-year-old Haig found her way here after having already built microfinance companies in China and advised NATO about development priorities in Afghanistan. When she graduated from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in 2012, she was introduced to Inglis and found a new passion.

“I can bite off one tiny corner of this immense issue and do something,’’ she said. “I think what clicked is that we were looking at nuclear terror — the problem of what happens if bad people get bad material, try to smuggle it into the US, and set it off.’’

Haig showed me a prototype of her firm’s detectors in the Greentown Labs space a few days ago and I nodded as you might when an insurance salesman struggles to explain the difference between term and whole-life policies. But I did absorb this much: The detectors they’re making are small, affordable, and able to spot the only two elements that can be used to make a nuclear explosion: plutonium and highly enriched uranium.

Now imagine a series of those imbedded in the jersey barriers along the Mass Pike or at your city’s key exit ramps. At $5,000 apiece, they’re designed to cheaply and efficiently erect a web of detectors to prevent widescale nuclear disasters.

Silverside has already attracted a $1.1 million government contract, trying to balance finite resources and growing threats.

“It’s like trying to dig out your driveway this winter with a teaspoon,’’ she said. “Budgets are tight and equipment is expensive and nobody expects an improvised nuclear device.’’

She wants to be ready. She’s busy working on it. And, when she’s not, she’s running marathons or writing limericks — perhaps better ice-breakers over that guacamole dip Saturday.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at thomas.farragher @globe.com.
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