Microscope in a needle wins SPIE Startup Challenge

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A miniature OCT probe encased in a needle that could help surgeons remove tumours in breast cancer patients has won the SPIE Startup Challenge competition at Photonics West in San Francisco. Robert McLaughlin from the University of Western Australia emerged victorious as the winning pitch among eight other finalists competing for the prize. He was awarded $10,000 in cash and $5,000 worth of Edmund Optics products to further the venture.

The eight entrepreneurs had only three minutes to pitch their technology and business proposals to a panel of judges. After their pitch, the judges questioned the contestants and then scored them on the technical merit of the device, the quality of the business and financial case, the competitive advantage of the technology and the delivery of the pitch.

McLaughlin, along with his partners in the venture, has developed an imaging device based on optical coherence tomography (OCT) small enough to be encased in a 30-guage medical needle. Surgeons removing a tumour in breast tissue, for instance, could use the needle to determine the tumour boundaries to reduce the chance of leaving cancer cells in the body.

The group already has ties with Vytran among other companies and McLaughlin plans to commercialise the product soon.

Second place and $5,000 prize money was awarded to Nicholas Durr at PlenOptika for a low-cost device to determine eyeglass prescriptions. The device, which costs less than $100, takes around one minute to assess the eyes and is aimed at improving eye care in developing countries like India. Durr also won the People’s Choice award for the best pitch, voted for online by the audience during the final.

Third prize and $2,500 went to Amos Danielli at MagBiosense for a biosensing device for diagnosing whether a patient is having a heart attack based on the levels of troponin in the blood. The sensor is able to make the assessment much faster than the laboratory assays used at the moment.

The eight contestants were chosen from an initial 35 applicants that had to go through two rounds of judging to reach the final. The judging panel for the final was comprised of Jay Kumler of Jenoptik, Samuel Sadoulet of Edmund Optics, Jason Eichenholz of Open Photonics, Bruce Itchkawitz of Knobbe Martens, and Adam Wax of Duke University.

The award is sponsored by Jenoptik with Edmund Optics also providing equipment valued at $5,000 for the winner.