Featured Article 21 Sep 2015

This year, when An Taoiseach Enda Kenny TD presented the St Patrick's Day Science Medal to Irish researcher Kathleen Fitzgerald at an event in Washington, he also helped to announce new Irish partnerships with three companies: IBM, Stryker and Compact Imaging.

IBM is a household name while Stryker, a Michigan-based medical technology company, will be known to some having had an R&D presence in Ireland since 1998.

Though it may be the least-known brand to get a shoutout from the Irish leader, Compact Imaging's work here in Ireland could end up powering the technology we encounter every day in the modern world.

Optical coherence tomography

Optical coherence tomography (OCT) is a non-invasive imaging technology that uses light to probe beneath the surface of skin. With OCT, we can 'see' 1-2mm deep in tissue, and this technology has transformed diagnostics in medical disciplines such as ophthalmology.

Revolutionary as OCT has been, though, it could still do with some refinement. At present, diagnostic machines cost anywhere between tens of thousands and more than €100,000. They're big, they need to be plugged in, and the operation of some is a two-person job.

Compact Imaging is developing the tools to change that and to enable mobile medical monitoring. Their ultimate aim is to fit all this technology onto a wristwatch.

What they're developing is a sensor for multiple reference OCT, or MRO.

"If you ever were to open up a DVD drive, you'd find in there something called the optical pick-up unit. It's the business end of a DVD drive, and it's a small, highly-integrated opto-electronics system. And it's a really, really close analogy to an MRO sensor," explains Don Bogue, CEO of Compact Imaging.

"Our view is that if those can be reduced to a size of 15mm by 30mm or 25mm, ours should be able to get at least that far."

Small is exactly what Compact Imaging is targeting – the clue is in the name – but the reason for shrinking non-invasive sub-surface imaging devices is not only to lower the cost and manpower of the operation, but also to broaden the range of applications.

The target size for the final product is that of the silver disc inside a standard one-euro coin, but Bogue tells me that's two generations away.

"That is not gonna happen this year, but that's how small we believe it can be," he says.

Essential biometrics

Off the top of your head, you may not be able to come up with a wide range of applications for a handheld device that can see just beneath your skin, but the uses of this technology are widespread.

Right now, we are seeing more and more wearable technology come to market promising biometric tracking, but a compelling use case has yet to be verified.

"The whole business of wearable and mobile monitoring that has given life to everything from the Fitbit, to the Apple Watch, to the Samsung Gear and all that stuff – all of that has initially been built around what we refer to as 'want-to-know' biometrics. Things that are interesting to me, like how many steps I've taken, how many calories I've burned, that sort of thing," says Bogue.

However, these biometrics are typically tricky to acquire, particularly non-invasively. Which is why a breakthrough MRO sensor that can measure involuntary behaviours under the skin from the surface seems like just what the doctor ordered.

If Compact Imaging is successful in developing a tiny transportable MRO sensor, it could transform the world of mobile monitoring from something that's fun to do to for consumers to something with real and sustainable value – the magic words for investors.

A deeper look at biometric security

Beyond health and wellness applications, Compact Imaging's MRO sensor also has a market in security technology.

Fingerprint scanning has become a standard feature of the top flagship smartphones, but the technology in these devices is fairly narrow. Bogue himself uses an iPhone 6 and, while he thinks the fingerprint sensor is a "marvellous piece of technology", he acknowledges its limitations.

"If I want to do anything other than fingerprint sensing, it's of no use," he says, perfectly teeing up the pitch for an MRO sensor that can look deeper and measure a range of things.

"Look at your index fingertip. What you'll be seeing is the superficial fingerprint. The primary fingerprint actually sits about a half a millimetre below the surface," Bogue explains.

This superficial fingerprint is a direct copy of the sub-surface primary print, but there's one key distinction in terms of security.

"The difference, of course, is that you cannot spoof the primary," says Bogue.

Therein lies the robust argument for multiple reference OCT as a biometric security opportunity. It's much more difficult to deceive. You can't use a fake fingerprint – the MRO sensor can even detect if the finger being scanned is indeed alive or dead.

World-leading Irish research

The need to make this technology compact and cost-efficient is what brings the Silicon Valley-based Compact Imaging back to Ireland, and into two institutions whose interests are perfectly aligned.

The first is NUI Galway, where Prof Martin Leahy, chair of the applied physics department, runs the Tissue Optics and Microcirculation Imaging (TOMI) lab.

"They are leading worldwide experts in the field of imaging the microvasculature that lies beneath the surface of skin, and so Martin has great familiarity with OCT and with the sorts of things that need to be looked at in the world of medical monitoring," says Bogue.

While TOMI is supporting the research, another Irish institution is collaborating on the development. At Tyndall National Institute, the Irish Photonic Integration Centre (IPIC) is shrinking OCT technology from bulky machines to something that lives up to the Compact Imaging name.

The system developed by Compact Imaging in an engineering lab started with a footprint of about 8×12 inches, which isn't going to fit inside any wristwatches.

Over the past year, miniaturisation of this technology has been in development at IPIC and, just last month, Compact Imaging received its first-generation prototype.

"It's pretty marvellous," says Bogue. "It's not the final generation but it's about 50mm square, and so, very small and a really significant step on the way towards something that is indeed much smaller."

Looking beyond the Valley

Funding, in part, for the miniaturisation of the MRO sensor has come through Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) via IPIC, and Bogue is grateful for the "tremendous support" the company has received from Ireland and its diaspora.

"People are frequently surprised to hear that over 80pc of our capital has come from Irish citizens, Irish residents and Irish institutions," he reveals. "For a Silicon Valley start-up, that is an extraordinary number."

"It is sort of a 'man bites dog' story, in some ways," Bogue jokes.

"I read all these stories about these young Irish entrepreneurs who leave Ireland and come to the States, come to the Valley, and do terrific things. It's enough to blow your socks off. They come here and they find a congenial environment that rewards ambition and hard work and bright thinking."

Conversely, Compact Imaging – while successful in Silicon Valley – found it necessary to come to Ireland.

"The skills were there, the capabilities were there and the capital was there, all accessible to us, I will say, by virtue of our connections through the Irish community," says Bogue.

"It has been central to our continued progress of the company and to the development of what we believe will be seen to be a groundbreaking optical sensor technology."

Elaine Burke

Smartwatch image via Shutterstock

A longer version of this article was originally published on www.siliconrepublic.com and can be found at:


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