Chattanooga-Based Variable Works with NASA to Rapidly Develop COVID-19 Detection Device

Variable, Inc. announced today that the company was awarded a NASA subcontract to prototype a NASA COVID-19 detection device called the E-Nose in 2020.

Pictured above: NASA’s E-Nose, or electronic nose, device for COVID-19 detection. Credits: NASA/Ames Research Center/Dominic Hart

Variable successfully produced the electronics and packaging for it – along with a paired mobile app – for the agency to test its nanosensor array technology, which was developed by NASA’s Ames Research Center for the detection of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in COVID-19 patients' breath.

Humans release unique volatile organic compounds in their breath when they are sick. This new device to be built by Variable could run tests to determine what the VOC pattern from virus infection might be by using its specialized nanosensor array. Instruments with the capability to detect harmful gases are typically bulky and designed for laboratory use; however, the E-Nose is handheld. Variable will work on building a device to detect a distinctive COVID-19 fingerprint from a list of VOCs in breath.

“We are incredibly honored to have this opportunity to work with NASA and feel strongly about this project because our nation and the world is in need,” says George Yu, Ph.D., Variable founder and Chief Executive Officer. “If we are able to be of any help, we want to do our part with the abilities we can offer our country.”

Scientists are still discovering new strains of COVID-19. And, while the outcome of this project is still largely unknown, Variable is committed to working with NASA and providing its resources and expertise to advance the agency’s nanosensor technology surrounding instant detection of the virus.

The level of expertise at Variable, coupled with the company's small size, allows the team to step in and provide assistance at a moment’s notice, whether that’s creating new and needed color communication devices or helping the human race solve critical problems through mastery of sensor technology, Variable spokesperson Suzanne Ocsai said. 

In fact, Variable has a global reputation for its reliable, accurate color communication tools, including the patented Color Muse® and Spectro 1 devices. The team has a specialized skillset in developing new sensor technology, building on a history of creating devices that could detect temperatures and complex gases among other components.

Early in his career, Yu worked as a NASA subcontractor to develop a device funded by the Department of Homeland Security. That device enabled smartphones to detect harmful gases using the agency’s nanosensor technology. This project had a tight window for completion, and Yu rapidly produced a successful prototype. When NASA reached out to its own workforce in April 2020 for innovative solutions to help in the fight against COVID-19, Dr. Jing Li, principal investigator of the Ames project, contacted Yu.

Variable is one of many successful graduates of the INCubator located in the Hamilton County Business Development Center and managed by the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce. Variable operated out of the INCubator between 2012 and 2017. 

About Variable, Inc.

Founded in 2012 and located in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Variable, Inc. is the global leader in mobile-paired spectrophotometers and colorimeters. Its patented technology enables users to accurately, affordably and effortlessly communicate color within a wide variety of industries from paint and coatings to print and design to textiles and fashion and more.

Variable produces devices such as the Color Muse, Color Muse SE, Spectro 1 and Spectro 1 Pro. Each is supported by Variable Cloud software and paired with custom apps for both iOS and Android. With these apps, users can scan and match to more than 500,000 different colors and items from household brands around the world. For more information, visit

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