Nanoscale imager for drug development wins SPIE Startup Challenge

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A 3D nanoscale imaging system designed to speed the drug development process was awarded first prize in the 2016 SPIE Startup Challenge. 

The annual business pitch competition was held on 17 February during SPIE Photonics West, the international trade fair and conference for optics and photonics technologies. During the live event, six finalists had three minutes in which to deliver their pitches showcasing optics or photonics technologies or applications presented as the basis for viable new businesses.

A marijuana breathalyser, and a disease diagnostic tool comprising refrigerator magnets and a laser pointer, received second and third place respectively. 

First-place winner, Double Helix of Colorado, pitched a 3D system that can image at the single-molecule level inside individual cells. During her pitch, the company’s co-founder, Leslie Kimerling, said that on average it costs $1 billion and takes 10 years to bring a drug to market, which in part is because pharmaceutical companies have no effective way of observing how a drug interacts.

Double Helix’s system can image at the nanoscale level with 10 times higher resolution than current systems, Kimerling said in her presentation. The device can also be used as an add-on to existing microscopes for around $50,000. Current 3D imaging systems cannot be used with pre-existing microscopes, according to Kimlering, meaning that to achieve high resolution, large and  expensive systems have to be purchased, costing up to $500,000. 

The Double Helix product has the potential to reduce the time involved in bringing targeted therapies to market by providing early verification and validation of the efficacy of drug therapy mechanisms in action.

The company was awarded with a $10,000 cash prize funded by Founding Partner Jenoptik plus $5,000 in products from sponsor Edmund Optics.

In second place was Diagnostic anSERS with its marijuana breathalyser. The Maryland-based company has designed its product based on surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS) for the police to test drivers for drug use. 

Sean Virgile, co-founder of Diagnostic anSERS, said during his pitch that when Colorado legalised Cannabis, 12.5 per cent of drivers tested by the police had marijuana in their blood. The company has been working with Ocean Optics, Maryland State Police, and Maryland State University to develop the device, and is now working on miniaturising the system and bringing down the cost to a point that it can be used routinely by police. 

Virgile also pointed out that another potential application could be for employers to determine whether their staff have been taking marijuana in their own time or during work hours. 

In third place was Disease Diagnostic Group, founded by John Lewandowski, who hopes his diagnostic tool made from refrigerator magnets and a laser pointer can be used to help diagnose diseases like malaria before people show symptoms, thus saving lives and treatment costs. 

According to Lewandowski, existing systems aren't sensitive enough to detect malaria at an asymptomatic level. In addition, the disposable parts (used to hold the patient's blood) cost between 35 and 40 cents in most instruments. but because DDG’s system uses off-the-shelf curvettes, the disposables are only three cents each, making the test much cheaper to carry out.

In the future, the device could be used to diagnose other diseases such as dengue fever or even the Zika virus, Lewandowski told the audience. 

The second and third place winners were awarded $5,000 and $2,500, funded by Jenoptik.

‘The photonics industry is so exciting because… no matter what market segment, there is potential that the markets will grow by double figures in the future,’ said Marc Himel, Jenoptik Optical Systems, at the event. ‘Sometimes new companies get entrenched by existing businesses; this is why it is important to promote and support startup companies.’  

Along with the winners, other finalists were: Bold Biometrix with its blood-pressure monitoring patches; Bodle Technologies, for its reflective displays for wearables; and Stream Technologies' spectral camera lens.

SPIE will provide support for winners to attend a multiday entrepreneur training camp and investor networking session for further help in refining their ideas.