CLINICAL BIOPHOTONICS DEVICES: Conference analyzes commercialization and market factors

Sept. 1, 2009
“Nanobiophotonics as a segment of nanotech is projected to have an enormous growth rate: 20X to 30X in five years,” said Dennis Matthews, director of the National Science Foundation-sponsored Center for Biophotonics Science and Technology (CBST) at the University of California, Davis (Sacramento, CA).

“Nanobiophotonics as a segment of nanotech is projected to have an enormous growth rate: 20X to 30X in five years,” said Dennis Matthews, director of the National Science Foundation-sponsored Center for Biophotonics Science and Technology (CBST) at the University of California, Davis (Sacramento, CA). He also noted that while growth of the many biophotonics-based “theranostics” companies is unsure due to lack of buy-in from pharmaceutical companies and venture capitalists, that situation is likely to change.

Matthews made his comments during the Advances in Optics for Biotechnology, Medicine and Surgery XI conference (June 28-July 2), which featured a session focused on the commercialization and marketing of clinical devices and systems. Matthews organized, hosted, and introduced the session, and he remarked on a trend he said is a healthy sign for the future: “hundreds of new biophotonics companies are appearing and being acquired seemingly overnight,” he said.

Matthews’ introduction included a discussion of the size of the biophotonics market and its segments. Research performed as a class project by UCD Graduate School of Management in 2006 sized the overall biophotonics market at $53 billion per year worldwide, he reported. The study broke that figure down into four segments: Medical diagnostics (in vitro diagnostics, imaging, “optical biopsies”, etc.) at $37 billion, medical therapeutics (surgical equipment, photodynamic and low-level-laser therapy instruments, and UV illuminators for instance) at $8 billion, tests and components (e.g. optical instruments, molecular biology, and probes) at $7 billion, and non-medical applications (such as biometric devices and UV sterilization equipment) at $1 billion.

Based on CBST’s work to understand the needs of medical practitioners, Matthews reported that among the unmet needs biophotonics technologies are positioned to address with clinical devices and systems are image-guided surgery, especially tumor margin characterization (ideally, he said, such systems would be “cheap, small and easy to use”); point-of-care (POC) diagnostics for clinics, hospitals and rural/pandemic medicine; clinical or field-portable imaging systems; precision surgery tools; tissue viability monitors; infectious disease tracking systems; compliance monitoring systems to determine whether patients are taking prescribed medicines; and wellness monitoring.

Matthews also noted that digital medicine is poised to explode, and that digital pathology in particular is critical for speeding medical diagnostics and spreading quality health care throughout the world.

Other perspectives

Among other speakers in the session were Bill Colston of QuantaLife, a nucleic acid testing technology startup. His talk, “Commercializing a molecular diagnostic instrument,” focused specifically on diagnostics systems, and identified five market drivers: simplicity; cost (inexpensive tools are needed for infectious disease screening, for example); the ability to enable POC decision making; increased accuracy; and multiplexing (enabling more measurements per dollar).

In a presentation titled “Emerging medical device technologies: The road from bench to commercialization,” Babak Nemati of Strategic Intelligence (a strategy and management consultancy focused on new technologies in the life sciences) covered the broad medical device market, noting that photonics play in all sectors as “subcomponents” of such systems. He pointed to the cardiology market as a key driver in this vast arena (having accounted for 6.9% of the worldwide medical device sales in 2002 according to Standard & Poor’s) and said that its “growth will be fueled by innovative new technologies.” Other key segments, he said, are general surgery, orthopedics, and ophthalmology. And among new and emerging segments are obesity, interventional pulmonology and neurology, and implants (sensors) for patient monitoring.

Product or company?

One of the more interesting parts of the session was Nemati’s challenge to attendees to determine–based on some details concerning management, funding, market opportunity, technology platform and so forth–whether a technology provided the basis for formation of a company, or whether it was better offered as product by an already established company. Nemati says that frequently, first-time entrepreneurs aren’t skilled at making the distinction–which is important because venture capitalists often pass on early-stage opportunities because they think the product concept is not large enough to warrant institutional funding. So, entrepreneurs sometimes waste one to two years working to launch a company when they would be better off pursuing a more appropriate path for commercialization of their product. For instance, a product could be integrated into the portfolio of a large medical device player.

One of the examples he presented was optical coherence tomography (OCT) technology. Following the first publication of the technique in 1991 and recognition of its application to diagnostics, some of the original collaborators formed a company called Advanced Ophthalmic Devices “but quickly realized the daunting task of developing and launching this product,” Nemati explained, and after building a functional prototype, sold the technology rights to Carl Zeiss, which as a large company was much better able to withstand the modest sales throughout the first several years of its availability. Today, Zeiss has sold more than 10,000 systems, but it has taken roughly two decades to do so. Nemati says, “in the final analysis, the inventors are happy with the money they received, even though they did not form a venture backed startup.”

About the Author

Barbara Gefvert | Editor-in-Chief, BioOptics World (2008-2020)

Barbara G. Gefvert has been a science and technology editor and writer since 1987, and served as editor in chief on multiple publications, including Sensors magazine for nearly a decade.

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