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Helping drinkers monitor their intake ; Tech firm opens at UB incubator

Bars and restaurants are not the only businesses looking to cater to New Year's revelers.

An Ontario company that just opened a Buffalo office sells a BlackBerry app and also a personal breath monitor to help drinkers keep tabs on their alcohol intake.

Now, it's getting help from the University at Buffalo Technology Incubator -- just in time for one of the biggest drinking holidays of the year.

"Christmas and New Year's is always a big selling period," said Sherry Colbourne, co-founder and chief executive officer of Ladybug Teknologies Inc. of Cambridge, Ont., near Toronto.

The company, launched in Canada in 2002, began renting office space from the incubator in September.

"We made a decision to go into the U.S. market," Colbourne said. "We didn't want to cross the continent to get to the office, so Buffalo became an obvious place for us to go."

Ladybug Teknologies, one of 18 companies at the incubator, has one full-time employee at UB's Baird Research Park.

"When we're looking at companies, we look to see if they have a good chance of success and if the owners are coachable," said Kimberly A. Rohring, business manager at UB's Office of Science, Technology Transfer and Economic Outreach.

"We don't offer cheap real estate. It's market rate," she said. "But we offer services to companies in a position to learn," Rohring said.

"We thought Ladybug was one of those companies," she said. "It has a good market and a good business plan, and they're willing to learn."

The BlackBerry app helps a drinker keep track of his or her blood-alcohol quotient by logging the drinks as they're consumed. The program takes into account gender, age, weight and height.

The company touts the app as a tool that takes the user beyond a simple calculation of blood-alcohol readings. The app relies on an advanced algorithm used extensively by forensic toxicologists, the company says.

"We didn't make our app where at the end of the night, after you had six beers, you have to input the number of drinks you had," Colbourne said. "That's a recipe for failure."

Instead, the drinker inputs information each time he or she gets another drink.

The app calculates the person's blood-alcohol quotient each time new information is entered, and it will also indicate how much time must pass before the person's alcohol reading will reach 0.00 percent.

The countdown-to-zero reading helps social drinkers' real-time decision making, like when they're at a restaurant or bar and don't want to leave under the influence of alcohol, Colbourne said.

For some drinkers, it might take two hours to reach 0.00 percent after a glass of wine.

"If I want to be at zero when I leave, I'll know if I have to nurse this glass of wine over two hours," she said. "Or, I can drink it all at once and not drink anything else for two hours."

The company's BAQ Tracker Mobile app can be downloaded for $4.99 during its Christmas promotion.

The company has sold just under a thousand apps in 2010, she said.

The company says its BAQ Tracker, advertised as a law enforcement-grade personal breath monitor, provides an accurate and reliable measurement of breath-alcohol concentration.

Though more expensive than other brands, the personal breath monitor is marketed to professionals in their 30s and 40s who have a lot at stake -- including professional licenses -- if they're charged with driving while intoxicated.

The device costs $269, with other charges for calibration, carrying case, and a mouthpiece.

Other companies' breath monitors cost less, but rely on different technology that is not as accurate, she said.

"Spending $269 is a no-brainer, when you're talking about $2,000 for a DWI," Colbourne said.

"Our business is predominantly focused on the social drinker, not someone who is at-risk and needs more help," she said.

John F. Sullivan, project coordinator for Erie County's STOP-DWI program, likes the idea of people being aware of their alcohol intake.

But he cautioned that an app doesn't take into account everything that influences a blood-alcohol reading.

"There are so many factors: other medications, general health, time of day, how much sleep you've had, and what you ate," Sullivan said. "It also doesn't take into account tolerance. A 150-pound person who is not as fit as another 150-pound person could have a different reading."

"He's right. We can't talk about impairment," Colbourne said, noting that each person's brain and motor skills may be affected differently.

"We are taking into account all the scientific elements that affect absorption and elimination of alcohol," she said.

As for breath monitors, they need to be calibrated reguarly and must be used in certain ways, Sullivan said.

"You have to know how to use them," he said.

Given the country's economy, Colbourne said it might take several months before the company sees a benefit to its office at UB.

"It's all part of breaking into the market," she said. "In our business plan, we're anticipating seeing a benefit of the office in mid-2011. It will grow."