#186 from R&D Innovator Volume 4, Number 11          November 1995

Would I Have Been Successful if I Were an Expert?
by Charles Butland

Mr. Butland is chairman, DNA Technologies, Los Angeles, California (phone 310-337-7779).  He recently received an innovator’s award from R&D Magazine for his invention of DNA-based anti-counterfeiting technologies.

According to the laws of aerodynamics, the bumblebee can’t fly, but he doesn’t know it, so he flies anyway.  This sums up my experiences as an inventor.  I did not have the technical background in any of the fields I contributed inventions to.  I didn’t know what wouldn’t “fly.”

When I was approximately five years old, I was sent to a small rural store to buy some cereal.  The storekeeper used a long, hooked pole to pull the cereal off the top shelf.  I remember envisioning a machine then that could display the product through a window, and would drop the product through a slot when the handle was pulled.  I had unwittingly thought of a vending machine that only became a reality several years later.  Perhaps that was the origin of my attitude turning a “what if?” into a “why not?”

Minesweepers

During the Vietnam war I learned from a friend, whose family owned a shipyard, that the U.S. Navy was looking for a method to protect the minesweeper’s wooden decks from leakage due to cracks in the caulking.  The vessels had to be wooden in order not to unintentionally detonate a mine.  The Navy needed a fireproof, non-slippery material that could expand and contract under environmental extremes, and that could be repaired at sea.

At that time I was into another business, and thought that this goal was a potentially interesting business opportunity.   I researched all areas of chemical coatings, and discovered that the only coating designed for decks was colored paint.  I experimented by blending various plastic- and rubber-based compounds together.  The mix that worked the best was one experts told me wouldn’t blend (remember the bumblebee?).  This was all done in a garage with a local painting contractor who helped acquire the materials.  My formula provided a tough, abrasive-resistant coating that could expand and contract with the ship’s movements.

I brought samples of the coating to the Minesweepers Command at Long Beach Naval Shipyard.  They were sufficiently impressed to give me a contract to test the coating on a single minesweeper.  Fortunately, they were satisfied with this first trial and it led to a priority contract for the entire pacific fleet. 

I called the product DURA-DECK and continued producing it in the painting contractor’s garage, using a cement mixer.  After two years, as the demand increased, we finally moved to a small building and added sophisticated blenders and mixers.  Here I was--a 23 year-old inventor whose coating was used on all the minesweepers of the entire Pacific Naval fleet!  I accomplished this without owning a chemical plant or having any formal education in chemistry.

The Navy began using it on carrier decks (most older carriers had wooden decks), and major companies began to enter the market.  Although I had a demonstrated service and a proven system, I lacked the prestige and connections to compete.  I finally ended my career in this business after securing a multi-million dollar deck-coating contract with Leisure World.  When I was 29 years old, I sold the company.

Fingerprints

In the early 1980’s I came across an article about how the Japanese accidentally discovered the main ingredient of superglue, cyanoacrylate, was chemically attracted to fingerprints.  I researched Federal Bureau of Investigation technical journals on fingerprints and discovered that the technology hadn’t advanced beyond brush and powder in more than sixty years.

I immediately realized I could offer a new technology that could revolutionize fingerprint detection.  My process could obtain prints on surfaces which were usually not amenable to show fingerprints on materials such as styrofoam cups, wood surfaces, and sticky tape.  It could also show prints on wet or dusty surfaces.

With help from a cyanoacrylate chemist, I developed a mobile superglue fuming technology  called DURA-PRINT, for law enforcement.  The system consists of a covered plastic tank that contains a heat lamp, spray unit, and purging unit with charcoal filters (to eliminate odors).  Later, I engineered the glue to be applied from a spray can.  The investigator places crime-scene objects inside the tank, closes the cover, and sprays a mist over the evidence.  The prints develop within a couple of minutes. 

In 1983, I appeared on a major television show (Barbara Walter’s 20/20) where my invention was shown solving a homicide.  A big boost for the technology came when it was key to apprehending the infamous “Night Stalker,” who terrorized and killed an estimated 25 people in Los Angeles before he was captured in 1985.

Superglue fuming is now standard technology, used by most law enforcement agencies around the world.  Yet I had no law enforcement, fingerprint, or chemical background.

DNA Genetic Ink

The newest invention, which won the 1995 R&D 100 Award, can prove that someone’s signature is authentic, preventing alteration or forgery of that signature.  The invention is a genetic ink containing DNA segments from an individual’s genes.  These segments are unique for each person and can be readily analyzed by a special electronic reader we developed.

My interest in DNA was a natural evolution from my previous fingerprint work; fingerprints being unique to each individual.  I was intrigued by the idea of producing a chemical fingerprint that cannot be re-engineered.  So I contacted DNA scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles and the president of National Ink Corporation.  Together we produced a unique anti-counterfeiting method utilizing DNA into a coded ink. 

The system incorporates an individual’s unique DNA segments in an ink.  These segments can easily be amplified from a few cells scraped off the inside of a cheek by a plastic brush.  The ink may be applied to any surface by signature pen, hand stamp, or commercial printing.  By taking only a very small sample of the dried ink (e.g. on a document), it’s possible to rapidly prove the signature authentic by demonstrating the presence of the signer’s DNA segment.

Celebrities such as cartoon artist, Joe Barbera, football player Joe Namath, and former heavyweight boxer, Muhammed Ali, now sign in an ink containing their own DNA.  Thus, they get protection not only through their unique signature, but also from the DNA in the signature.

This technology has potential use in stopping use of such items as counterfeit currency, passports, licenses, or credit cards.  Once again, my idea was brought to fruition despite no formal training in molecular biology or electronics.

I am now  developing a DNA molecular tagging process, by an electronic reader, that may be coded to reveal distributor networks so that we will be able to determine if a product is genuine and learn of its origin.  This could be a major breakthrough as it relates to counterfeit and diversion.  I wonder if this project will be hindered by my lack of expertise in electronics?

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