Courtesy Hound Labs
  • Hound Labs, a startup that aims to make the first marijuana breathalyzer, raised a fresh $30 million (around R460 million) on Tuesday.
  • The California-based company also published the first study offering a glimpse at how the handheld device works.
  • Today, there's no good way to determine if someone is too high to work or drive. But the study contains some important limitations.
  • Hound Labs hopes to start shipping its device late this year or early 2020.
  • For more stories go to the Business Insider SA homepage.

A startup aiming to make the first marijuana breathalyzer raised a fresh $30 million (the equivalent of around R460 million) on Tuesday and also published the first study offering a glimpse at how the device works.

If successful, the technology could help employers and police detect people who are currently impaired from the type of currently available. The tool also measures alcohol like a standard breathalyzer.

Investors are betting that demand for such a device could be substantial.

Oakland, California-based Hound Labs told Business Insider it aims to start rolling out the device late this year or in early 2020. 

Mike Lynn and his wife, Jenny, founded Hound Labs in 2014 at the peak of dagga legalisation efforts across a half-dozen American states. 

Mike is a former deputy sheriff, emergency room physician, and venture capitalist. Jenny previously served as head of marketing for two large advisory firms.

A unique device that would fill a big need

The Lynns' technology would be the first of its kind.

Today, there's no reliable legal way to tell if someone is too high to work or drive. Hair, urine, or saliva tests can only tell if someone has used dagga in the past few days - not whether they're impaired at the moment.

But making a dagga breathalyzer isn't as straightforward as making one for alcohol. When someone who's been drinking exhales, it's fairly easy to pick up on relatively high levels of booze on their breath. When someone who's been vaping or smoking exhales, cannabis is detectable only in minute amounts - making it difficult to pick up.

Mike Lynn likened it to "finding the needle in 10,000 haystacks," he previously told Business Insider.

A small study with some important limitations

So in its new study, Hound aimed to show that its handheld device could reliably spot the fine traces of marijuana exhaled by a group of 20 volunteers who smoked, vaped, and used edibles. Using Hound's tool (which users blow into for a minute) and a standard blood test, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco tested the volunteers every 15 minutes for the first hour they'd consumed and then every 30 minutes until 3 hours had passed.

The findings were published last month in the journal Clinical Chemistry.

The study was small and paid for by Hound, but it suggested that the device could detect recent marijuana use.

It also had some limitations, however: Researchers didn't compare people who'd smoked against people who did not, for example, and the results varied pretty dramatically among the participants, which could mean it's still too early to come up with an objective numerical figure for "impaired" cannabis use.

Still, investors are hopeful. Many of them say that as legalisation spreads, we need better ways of differentiating between people who are currently impaired from those who've consumed cannabis legally in the past.

Earlier this year, Hound got funding from Dick Wolf, the creator and executive producer of the hit television series "Law & Order." On Tuesday, VC firm Intrinsic Capital Partners led the fresh $30 million round, joined by NFP Ventures, the investment arm of one of the largest US insurance brokers, and Main Street Advisors. Existing backers Icon Ventures and Benchmark Capital also contributed to the latest raise.

Hound's device could replace hair and urine testing

Hound said it has now raised a total of $65 million (nearly R1 billion). The company declined to provide its valuation.

Shawn Ellis, a managing director at NFP Ventures, sees Hound's device as a potential solution to poor hair- and urine-based drug testing methods currently used across industries like construction and trucking. Those tests can't distinguish between someone who just smoked and someone who used several days before.

"It's a huge leap forward to move away from hair and urine testing," Ellis told Business Insider.

See also: Smoking dagga is being decriminalised, but you can still be fired for it – maybe

Receive a daily email with all our latest news: click here.

Also from Business Insider South Africa: