A company headed by a Kolkata-born tech-preneur is developing colour-sensor technology that will significantly enhance airport security.
From 2013, airline passengers in Europe will have Arnab Basu to thank every time airport security runs their hand luggage through an x-ray machine. That is the year Europe has committed to allowing passengers to carry liquids in their hand luggage, banned since 2006. And the task of detecting explosives in the lotions, after-shaves and shampoos is dependent on sensor technology developed by a company co-founded and headed by this tech-preneur born and schooled in Kolkata.
Kromek, his company based in County Durham in the north-east of England, specialises in making complex semiconductor material used in x-ray scanners to produce digital, colour and three-dimensional images. By changing for good the black-and-white world of x-rays, Kromek’s technology, which is derived from chroma the Greek word for colour, will help airlines and security agencies across the world spot and eliminate potential liquid bomb threats without harassing millions of air passengers.
For the past week, 37-year-old Basu says he has been averaging three hours of sleep a night owing to regular transatlantic flights to conclude a deal with the US defence department. But his career marks a far longer personal journey.
After finishing school at Hindi High School (now Birla High School) and graduating from St Xavier’s College with a BSc in physics, chemistry and math, Basu worked in his father’s metal-processing business in his home town between 1993 and 1996 before he moved to England for higher education.
He admits that he did not see a future so closely associated with global security issues. On the contrary, after his PhD in physics from Durham University, he was well on his way to becoming a banker in the City, London’s globally famous square mile.
In Basu’s case, destiny came bearing the name of Professor Mark Robinson in Durham University, who asked Basu to carve out Durham Scientific Crystals from its academic setting and run it as a commercial spin-off
Colour being the essence of this business, Basu and his team decided to name the new spin-off Kromek. So far, the company has raised £19 million from British and American investors. Basu is confident that this financial year his company will start reporting top-line numbers in “double digit millions” (though he’s not willing to disclose current numbers).
Kromek is a tiny 45 -person outfit but it has 60 families of patents to its name. The bottle scanner is already in use, though Basu will not name the airports concerned for security reasons. The successor to this technology, which will take the company to the next level, is currently being tested in many places.
Security screening is only one of its potential applications; it can also be used in medical imaging, industrial inspection and space exploration.
For less scientifically-inclined minds, Basu describes his company as “an Intel among x-ray machine makers”. Just as the Intel chip defines the computer that houses it, so will Kromek’s technology for the x-ray machines of the future.
He does not, however, see Kromek becoming a manufacturing giant. “It will basically be a technology company and much more solution-focused. We will be IP creators, solution creators and part of a supply chain,” he says.
All of this gives him little time to indulge his fondness for food, music and an occasional round of golf. “Like any other Bengali I love eating and try to keep fit,” he says.
He has given up following cricket since he moved to the UK. Loyal to the region where his new life began a decade-and-a-half back, he is a die-hard supporter of Newcastle United football team.
Currently on a brief stopover in London, he is eager to fly home to his three-and-half year old son and his Belgian wife — whom he met in Kolkata — who is expecting their second child.