For eight years, a small Wisconsin company has been working to create inexpensive portable sensors that detect deadly gases, pesticide exposure, even rotting fish and meat.

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MILWAUKEE — For eight years, a small Wisconsin company has been working to create inexpensive portable sensors that detect deadly gases, pesticide exposure, even rotting fish and meat.

The challenge now is to perfect a product that companies and consumers want to buy.

The idea for the sensors grew out of a breakthrough made by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers in 2001. Working with incredibly tiny nano particles, UW-Madison scientist Nicholas Abbott and others created a sensor that has an ultrathin layer of gold film coated with receptors that make it turn lighter or darker when it comes in contact with a targeted substance.

Tiny liquid crystals, the same as those used in LCD television and computer screens, are key to the changes in the sensor’s color intensity.

The company, Platypus Technologies, got several exclusive patents on the technology from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation and the University of California, and it has added more of its own. It has 14 patents and patent applications on the technology.

But so far, that wealth of potential has produced no commercial products.

Aiming to change that, the Madison, Wis., nanotechnology company this month announced the appointment of Richard Schifreen as president and CEO, the third person in 18 months to hold that position.

The company’s hope is that he will be able to commercialize sensors that use Platypus’ core liquid-crystal technology and land them in a market Schifreen says could potentially be as big as several hundred million dollars.

Platypus last year launched its first product, a test called the Oris Cell Migration Assay that is designed to help cancer researchers and pharmaceutical companies determine whether cells will migrate to other locations. Platypus also sells gold-coated substrates, the platform for its liquid-crystal sensors, to other researchers — and is developing a handheld asthma monitor that uses liquid-crystal technology to measure nitric oxide levels in people’s breath.

But the top priority is the so-far-elusive liquid-crystal sensor.

Schifreen says he’s ready to tackle it.

“I like challenges, I like to do really hard stuff,” he said. “I’ve worked my career developing businesses, working for others, and I’ve done it in a number of different fields. This is a chance for me to pull together everything I’ve learned, take on the hardest challenge I’ve ever taken on, and be successful.”

From the time when a flat-panel display was conceived in a lab, it took 20 years for the idea to result in commercial computer and television screens, Schifreen said. The closest thing on the market to the sensors Platypus is developing is a Biacore product drug developers can use to label interactions, but it uses a different technology, he said.

The challenge with Platypus’ sensors is in limiting background “noise” and interference and making the sensor durable enough despite the thin materials used to build it.

“You have to get a mix of sensitivity and low background, and you have to make them robust, they have to be sturdy — then you have to figure out how to make potentially thousands or millions, and make them all the same,” Schifreen said.