The Disruptors: Intelligent Fingerprinting’s non-invasive drug test is giving users dignity

Professor David Russell's research into fingerprinting led to a market breakthrough - and the launch of a significant drugs test challenger. In the latest installment in The Disruptors video series, he explains how he did it.

Tell us about Intelligent Fingerprinting

We’ve developed a very simple lateral flow test, which is just like a pregnancy test, for determining whether somebody has taken drugs or medication. We do that from the sweat of a fingerprint. It takes one minute to collect the sample, and then 10 minutes do the analysis.

What was the opportunity that led you to launch your business?

In 2005 my research lab at the UEA was looking into whether we could gain more information from a fingerprint than just identity, and we found that we could use fingerprints to sufficiently detect drug use. Existing testing methods are predominantly based on urine or blood, which are pretty invasive and involve having to wait for results – we wanted to be able to get a sample there and then.

We launched in 2007, and then worked with the Home Office to identify particular drugs that would be useful for screening, like cocaine, heroin, cannabis, or methamphetamine.

How did you use invention and innovation to disrupt the market?

The disruption comes from the fact that the test is so simple. Our customers have told us that the dignity offered by the test is significant, too. In drug abuse situations, you have to give an observed sample, and there’s no dignity in that at all. Our test means everyone is much more comfortable about giving, or observing, a sample.

What were the challenges you faced along the way and how did you learn from them?

A big unexpected hurdle was that people didn’t believe us! They said “It’s too good to be true. How is fingerprint sweat going to give you this much information?” Really, it’s like the smudge that’s on your screen after you talk on the phone. We’ve collected thousands of samples to prove that we could do it.

What’s been your proudest moment so far?

There have been many. We started selling in 2017, and making that first sale was a big moment. We also recently secured a £1m order. Just seeing people amazed that it works is really exciting to me.

What are your plans for the future?

We’d like to know what else can be learned from the sweat of a fingerprint. Could we detect the biomarkers of diseases like heart disease, for example? So a GP might be able to use our tests to determine that. I’m pretty sure it’s entirely feasible.