There are a lot of counterfeit products out there — bogus designer clothing, fake auto parts, even phony aircraft components. But a Framingham company thinks it can put the forgers out of business, with a spray of artificial diamond dust.
DUST Identity spun off from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2011, and has received more than $2 million in federal grants through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. In its early days, the company focused on futuristic ideas, like using nanoparticles of synthetic diamond to build chips for quantum computers that haven’t been developed yet. But now the company wants to use its diamond particles to weed out counterfeit products, which cost the US economy $600 billion a year, according to the FBI.
DUST Identity recently raised $10 million in venture funding, in a round that included venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins and the investment arms of aerospace companies Airbus and Lockheed Martin, companies that are always on the lookout for better ways to identify and track the millions of parts they purchase every year.
DUST Identity’s chief executive and co-founder Ophir Gaathon, said his company is getting inquiries from carmakers, pharmaceutical firms, even food and cosmetics companies.
“We’ve just been overwhelmed with the number of requests,” said Gaathon, “I think we’ve hit a nerve.”
DUST stands for “Diamond Unclonable Security Tag.” The system combines tiny diamond particles with a polymer that bonds the diamonds to the surface of a manufactured object. The system is compatible with a variety of polymer chemicals, so a manufacturer can use whichever chemical works best for its products.
The diamond-polymer blend is sprayed onto the product — an electronic circuit board, for instance. Because the diamond dust is so fine, a speck of material no wider than a human hair is large enough to tag the item. And because the bits of diamond are distributed at random inside the material, no two tags will ever be the same. This makes it impossible to copy, or “clone” one of the tags.
Next, the manufacturer scans the diamond tag, using a device similar to a supermarket bar code scanner. This reads the randomly-scattered bits of diamond and generates a unique digital code. The manufacturer stores the code in a database, which can be made available to its customers. This way, an aircraft company that buys circuit boards can instantly confirm that the new batch of boards are the real deal. A worker just runs a board through a diamond dust scanner, and checks the resulting code against the board maker’s database. If the numbers match, the board is genuine.
“We see this technology as rather compelling,” said Chris Moran, general manager of Lockheed Martin Ventures. His parent company makes some of the US military’s most important aircraft, including the F-35, F-22 and F-16 fighters. But even for these highly specialized airplanes, he said, “there are potentially lots of counterfeit parts on the market.” So Lockheed Martin has begun testing the DUST Identity system for its most critical “Class I” parts.
Thomas d’Halluin, managing partner of Airbus Ventures, said that Airbus is also trying out the DUST Identity system. “The probability of counterfeit parts is a real threat,” d’Halluin said. “There is no room to negotiate with the safety of our products.”