Last weekend was a time to reminisce for Gilbert Levin.
Saturday marked the 25th year anniversary of the Viking’s landing on Mars. On Viking was an instrument designed by Mr. Levin and his team of scientists from Their research sought to determine if there’s life on the Red Planet.
This week Mr. Levin, 77, is presenting two papers at a scientific meeting, where he will once again say why he unlike NASA and a large portion of the scientific community believes that there’s life on Mars.
Mr. Levin’s earthly endeavor for almost a half century has been Spherix, a company he started in 1957 and built in into a profitable, well-run business. Almost all of the company’s $18 million revenues last year came from the call centers it runs servicing government agencies and pharmaceutical companies.
Another 5 percent of Spherix’ revenues stem from the company’s biotechnology division, which focuses on creating anti-pollution products.
Aside from Mr. Levin’s hopes of doing more work with NASA in search of extraterrestrial life, Spherix has been making the news these days with tagatose, a natural, low-calorie sweetener that it discovered nearly a decade ago, and with FlyCracker, a safe pesticide.
Spherix researchers stumbled upon tagatose in the early 1990s. Unlike other sweeteners, tagatose is bulky not concentrated and can be used like table sugar to make ice cream or bake a cake.
In 1996 the company sold the rights to develop the sweetener for use in foods to MD Food Ingredients. The Danish company was the perfect candidate to make tagatose, because the sweetener can be made from cheese byproducts something MD Food has plenty of.
But the Danish company had to wait until April, when the Food and Drug Administration finally gave its approval for the use of tagatose in foods. Now MD Food has to wait for approval to build a manufacturing plant, and then royalties will start pouring into Spherix’ coffers.
“We’re poised to move out of being a low-cap company to at least being a middle-cap, because we’re looking at an influx of capital and royalties,” says Mr. Levin, who recently stepped down as chief executive of Spherix but has retained the titles of president and chairman of the Beltsville company.
Like his wife, who left her position as science writer for Newsweek shortly before Spherix was started, Mr. Levin is incapable of considering retirement.
“I think it would be terrible,” he laughs. “My wife thinks so, too.”
Karen Levin meant to stay home and raise children, but as she watched her husband work with NASA, she decided she could put her writing skills to use at Spherix. She wrote one of the company’s earliest funding proposals, and when that turned out well, she permanently took over the task. And that’s how the information technology division that runs call centers was born.
An analyst with HG Wellington & Co., a New York financial advisory firm, told The Washington Times that Spherix is a highly speculative stock that moves in an orbit of its own, with tagatose being the potential home-run.
Mr. Levin acknowledges this, saying, “When we first went public, I told my friends invest your cigarette money, but not your whiskey money. Now I tell them invest your cigarette money and part of your whiskey money.”
But the wait is paying off, and the company’s stock has been climbing. Its 52-week low was $4.22 in August; Its high was earlier this month at $11.74. Shares of Spherix closed at $9.85 on Nasdaq Friday.
“I find Gil to be an extremely intelligent sort of scientific type man,” says Tim Grant, president of HG Wellington.
“He’s gotten a lot of notoriety because of the approval” of tagatose, he adds. “But he’s had some other interesting products, and all of them had to do with the betterment of earth.”
FlyCracker, Mr. Levin says, is the first pesticide safe to the environment and humans. Already the governments of India, Canada, Chile and Australia have expressed interest.
The pesticide is a powder, that unlike other pesticides, which can be harmful to animals and humans, can be placed in barns and food processing plants.
“We’re looking at the cattle, poultry, equine industries and food processing plants,” Mr. Levin says. “But eventually it can be even used in Dumpsters and garbage cans.”
Wesley Huntress, director of the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Geophysical Laboratory, met Dr. Levin while serving as NASA’s associate administrator for the Office of Space Science some ten years ago. Dr. Huntress was responsible for all of the agency’s space-science programs, so he heard from Mr. Levin quite often.
“Gil been a bit of a controversial character in the history of Mars science since the Viking landing,” says Dr. Huntress. “He’s been a sort of gentle maverick in the area of kind of keeping everybody’s ideas and hopes that there’s life on Mars.”