Instilled with a strong work ethic at a young age by his radiologist father, Gustavo Caneda has always known he wanted not just a job, but a career guided by passion, dedication and helping others. He found his calling in applied spectroscopy. Over the last 25 years, he has used his enthusiasm and love of science to supply spectroscopy products to a range of customers, founding his own instrument technology company and later partnering with Ocean Optics to help the company bring spectroscopy to real world industrial applications.
Question: What first inspired your interest in science?
GC: I began working when I was 14. My first job was to help my father, a radiologist who supplied home services to house-bound patients. It was hard work, hauling heavy equipment by himself, with long days and no holidays. But, people respected him so much. I saw how he treated people, not as patients, but as human beings. I saw the affection he received back.
His passion, dedication and humanity were a guiding light for me. I said to myself, “I want to do something like this. I want to be good, passionate and receive the respect he receives.”
The X-ray equipment he used was my first exposure to scientific instrumentation and spectroscopy. I went on to study Chemical Engineering at the University of Buenos Aires, and set my sights on a professional career in the energy and food industries. In 1991, by absolute chance, an optical filter NIR instrument was put in front of me, with the challenge to find an application for it. From that first instrument grew a passion to do something good, different, great with spectroscopy.
Applied spectroscopy has given me a rewarding and fun way to make a living. I absolutely believe science can be really fun. And it´s even better when it can help people, too!
Question: What did you end up doing with that first optical filter NIR instrument?
GC: At first, I didn’t have a clue about that old instrument with a boring display. I couldn’t imagine how many “magic” things would later come from it. So I began to research, in a time when the Internet didn’t even exist. I devoured every single publication and book I could find in the market and contacted all the researchers that had been working on this matter. The first applications I tried to solve were measuring fat content in sunflower seeds and moisture, ash and protein content in wheat flours. I needed samples and data, so I began traveling all over my country, knocking on doors everywhere, introducing myself at various labs. People watched me like I was a crazy guy fighting against windmills.
Can you imagine? In the ’90s NIR was a bad word in Argentina, because the people that sold the first instruments didn’t have any idea of how to calibrate them. So I had not only to get a good application from that “stupid” box but also rebuild the reputation of the technology itself. I spent a lot of hours with small, square plastic bags of flours, cutting and playing with that white powder at night, in the downtown, where it would be very complicated to explain to the police that was really wheat flour and not something else! I could tell you thousands of stories about the empirical tests I ran to dig deep into the soul of the NIR technology capability.
Question: What have been the biggest challenges in starting and running a technology business?
GC: The most challenging moment in my professional life was when I decided to start a company and develop my own systems and instruments. It was a mountain that I had always dreamed of climbing, and I unfortunately decided to do it in the middle of the worst weather! By the end of our first year, the economy in Argentina was in severe crisis. We survived, with tremendous effort, dedication and mainly, because the passion was there, intact. We never gave up and 14 years later are still running, innovating and creating.
We started out with very low financial resources, since our country doesn’t have “angel” venture capitalists that fund these kinds of projects. The other big hurdle was that we were doing something that no one else was doing in Latin America. We were in unchartered territory. It was a long journey, knocking on doors, getting our name out there, showing what we were capable of, and teaching. There was a lot of education needed for industrial customers to understand the potential for this new technology.
Question: What is the most rewarding part of your work?
GC: I love it when I can find a solution that makes a significant improvement, or fix a problem by designing a new device. It’s so exciting when I can take my expertise and create real equipment out of a vision I had in my head.
The other rewarding aspect is working with customers, earning their appreciation and respect. It is absolutely indescribable the satisfaction I feel when it all comes together: an idea becoming an instrument, which is the perfect fit for an application, that makes some client absolutely happy!
Question: What surprises you most about science and technology today?
GC: The speed at which it moves. The voracious appetite to do everything smaller, faster, cleaner. Ten years ago, “fast” was a couple of days; today it is a couple of hours, minutes or even seconds!
The most remarkable part is science reaching into our everyday lives through more clever and automatic devices that address real problems. People with celiac, diabetes, allergies and so many other conditions are living better lives due to instruments that aid in diagnosis, monitoring and treatment. On a wider scale, instruments for food quality control, contamination detection, and online process monitoring improve safety for everyone.
Question: What profession would you pursue if you weren’t a scientist?
GC: I wouldn’t say I am a scientist — at least not in the way people commonly think of them. I am a man that believes strongly in the study, practice and use of science as a tool to improve lives. But I like to see myself as the bridge that helps to join the science with the reality, the paper with the application, the algorithms with the results.
Science is creation for me, observation, imagination. So, if I wasn’t doing this, I would be doing something where I could let my brain fly beyond the limits. I can see myself as an artist, creating beautiful things with wood and iron. Or a winemaker, cultivating my own vineyard to produce a beautiful red. Even better, I could combine the two! I can picture myself sitting down on a chair made by my own two hands, with a crystal glass full of tannin-rich nectar.