Meter Group – Measuring Moisture Accurately

Meter Group - Formerly Decagon Devices

Dr. Colin Campbell

A Story 35 Years In The Making

METER Group, formerly Decagon Devices, is a technology firm founded in 1983 in Pullman by Dr. Gaylon Campbell centered on an apparatus to accurately measure moisture levels in the soil. In the nearly 35 years since, Decagon has created products utilized in everything from the most stringent of laboratory environments to the vacuum of space, with implications in fields as diverse as agriculture technology, food service and storage, and pharmaceuticals. In speaking with Dr. Colin Campbell, son of Decagon’s founder, this seemingly incongruous path from Earth to the lab to Mars becomes much more clear.

Problem Solvers Extraordinaire

First and foremost, METER is comprised of problem solvers extraordinaire. While their initial product was born out of the elder Dr. Campbell’s specific need, it wasn’t long before he and his team took the implications of their innovation and repurposed this technology for other applications, namely food safety. When Colin joined the team in 2000, nearly 80% of Decagon’s business was focused on food safety and storage, where their devices for measuring water content and activity as a predictor for microbial growth allow food producers to accurately estimate shelf-life and storage parameters for everything from eye drops to fresh fruit.

Custom Solutions Expands Customer Base

Throughout this time, Decagon gained a reputation for developing unique solutions for difficult problems. By continuously focusing on the individual needs of a customer, Decagon was able to create specific products that they knew would meet requirements. Then, if it seemed like there was a market for a specific product or a modified version, they could ramp up production for a wider customer base.

As Colin says, ‘If our customers buy our products, but they don’t use them or they aren’t effective, then we’ve failed.’

In creating a loyal base of satisfied customers and cultivating a reputation for custom solutions, Decagon has been able to grow far beyond their typical categorization as an agriculture technology firm. Fueled by Dr. Graylon Campbell’s passion for understanding the world around him through accurate scientific modeling, there was no shortage of new problems to solve and opportunities to create new solutions.

From Pullman To NASA By Way Of Mars

One such opportunity came of a chance encounter when someone from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory saw a demonstration of a Decagon sensor at an expo years earlier. This person, now working on outfitting the Mars Rover, called out of the blue to see it could be altered to measure the thermal activity of the suns rays as they interacted with the surface of Mars. In true Decagon fashion, the final product became much more than that, and it included the capability to measure water content, temperature, wind speed, and many other useful readings. Though some of the other components on the rover had their issues, Decagon’s sensor remained active and accurate throughout the mission, providing new insights to the atmospheric and terrestrial conditions on the Red Planet never before recorded. Colin said that the whole experience was tremendous, from being introduced to new methods and problem-solving skills of the engineers they worked with to the splashy advertising boon of working with NASA.

“We Can’t Understand What We Can’t Measure”

With the list of complex questions growing by the day, Colin explains their guiding methodology in creating solutions in three parts. The first area stems from an old scientific adage that ‘We can’t understand what we can’t measure’. In other words, without accurate data, often down to the molecular level, one cannot understand the problem at hand, much less the solution. That leads to the second area of focus, telemetry, or the process of recording and transmitting data from an instrument. If data is being collected anywhere but from the actual point of use, the margin for error skyrockets and the data can become useless.

For example, it’s one thing to be able to measure water evaporation in a closed laboratory environment, but that does not necessarily help a wine-maker understand which vines to water when planning for a dry spell. Lastly, Decagon must consider how the user is going to interact with the information they receive. In some cases, granular data is of paramount importance, in others, it is only important to provide a broad model that converts this data into something that can be practically acted upon. It is this combination of scientific rigor and engineering ingenuity that has made Decagon and now METER such a success.

METER Group – Working Together Continents Apart

Over the course of their existence, Decagon worked very closely with a Munich-based firm called UMS, which eventually led to last year’s merger and their joint existence as METER Group. The two companies shared many similarities in outlook and practice, so much so that the merger simply consisted of each firm purchasing a portion of each other’s stock. Rest assured, though, METER has no plans of leaving the Palouse for Germany or anywhere extraterrestrial – Colin and his compatriots love not only what they do, but where they do it.

Colin teaches a class every year at WSU on Environmental Biophysics, a class his father used to teach and still guest-lectures in on occasion, and METER often hires more than a handful of students after graduation. He spoke glowingly of the Palouse as one of the most unique parts of the world, a small community that is extremely well educated with access to performing arts, great schools, skiing and fishing nearby. Take it from an engineer who makes his living on accurate measurements, as METER would like nothing more than to attract the best and the brightest,

‘It’s great here. The quality of life, the work-life balance. While there is no perfect place, this is about as close as it gets.’

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