Surgical photonic device wins SPIE Startup Challenge

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An optical device for preventing injury during minimally invasive surgeries, a microphone with no moving parts, and a plasmonic film to detect mercury in power plants were selected as the top projects in the 2015 SPIE Startup Challenge.

The competition took place on 11 February in San Francisco at Photonics West, the laser, photonics, and biomedical optics conference and exhibition. Finalists had three minutes to deliver their pitches showcasing optics or photonics technologies presented as the basis for viable new businesses.

Johnathon Gunn of Briteseed won the competition for pitching SafeSnips, a novel tissue-detecting technology that gives surgeons critical information to make more informed decisions in the operating room. He received $10,000 in prize money funded by Jenoptik, along with $5,000 worth of products from Edmund Optics.

During his pitch, Gunn pointed out that as the number of minimally invasive surgeries have increased, so has the risk of blood vessels getting accidentally cut, ‘which causes economic and health consequences', he said.

He explained that there are over six million procedures every year in the United States at risk of accidental cuts, which occur in more than three per cent of cases, costing the hospital over $200,000 in each instance. ‘There is a conservative economic burden to our country of over $12 billion,’ Gunn told the audience.

The optical device is designed to inform the surgeon of the presence, size, orientation, and blood flow velocity of blood vessels before a cut is made. It is inserted into surgical tools that are already widely used in hospitals, according to Gunn, so as not to influence the surgeon’s behaviour, but rather provide them with additional information on their monitor.

The technology consists of an LED array which is fitted onto one side of the cutting tool. The transmitted light then shines through the cutting field to a sensing array on the opposing jaws of the tool. The spatial and absorbance information is used along with algorithms to provide real-time information to the doctor.

Advantages of the technology are that it is much smaller and less invasive than imaging systems used for the same purpose, and no dyes need to be injected into the blood stream.

‘What we're proud of is that we found a tangible clinical medical need,’ Gunn said. ‘Optics research has really brought us to the point where we can create a technology like this and have it used widespread in operating rooms nationally and internationally.’

The Briteseed team hope to have the technology built in the next year, according to Gunn.

In second place, and the winner of $5,000, was Balthasar Fischer of Xarion Laser Acoustics, who pitched the membrane-free optical microphone.

The device requires neither a membrane nor any other moving component to convert sound into electrical voltage, exploiting the fact that sound can change the speed of light.

‘For the last 150 years, all microphones have been based on moving parts,’ stated Fischer.

He then demonstrated how today’s mechanical microphones are sensitive to the mechanical impact of noise by tapping and blowing into the microphone, which created a harsh noise.

The microphone uses an arrangement of two parallel mirrors with a laser beam bouncing back and forth between them. The moment the sound wave arrives, Fischer explained, the refractive index of the air inside the cavity changes, leading to changing light intensity output.

The advantages of the microphone include being able to use it in liquids, as well as being capable of detecting sound from one direction and ignoring it from another, a major unsolved problem faced today, Fischer said.

A major application that the team want to target is acoustic metrology, according to Fischer, such as in industry plant surveillance and process control. Once mass produced and with a wafer optics miniaturised sensor, the company plans to target consumer electronics, particularly in automotive.

In third place, Jeffrey Crosby of Picoyune pitched a chemical sensing platform with a plasmonic film highly sensitive to mercury that can be coupled with existing gas monitors. The intended first customers are coal-fired power plants that, by law, need to monitor their output of mercury.

Mercury is a primary pollutant and a potent neurotoxin, Crosby told the audience. 

Picoyune interviewed more than 200 customers for market research, and found that power plant managers are struggling with the current instruments used to detect mercury, finding them too complicated to use, down for maintenance too often, and not selective enough.

The plasmonic film, however, is a robust, portable instrument that anybody can operate, and can replace expensive, complex laboratory equipment, Crosby said.

Finalist judges were Marc Himel of Jenoptik Optical Systems, Supriya Jaiswal of Hamamatsu, Jason Mulliner of Edmund Optics, Bruce Itchkawitz of Knobbe Martens, Mike Mielke of Trumpf, and Jason Eichenholz of Open Photonics.

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Further information:

SPIE Startup Challenge