Compact Imaging: The US start-up building a breakthrough photonics sensor in Ireland

21 Sep 2015

Compact Imaging’s MRO sensor has applications in diagnostics, biometric security and wearable technology. Photo via Denys Prykhodov/Shutterstock

Compact Imaging, a Silicon Valley start-up with Irish roots, is accelerating development of its groundbreaking MRO sensor through Irish research and development.

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.

The story of Compact Imaging

Compact Imaging’s story actually starts here in Ireland where Dubliner Josh Hogan began his work in physics, starting with a bachelor’s degree from University College Dublin followed by a PhD in solid-state physics from University of Ulster.

About 30 years ago, Hogan shipped off to California and found himself working at HP Labs in Palo Alto. Here, he developed small, low-cost opto-electronic technologies, including DVD+RW optical storage systems.

Also working at HP Labs was Carol Wilson, and the pair’s interest in optical coherence tomography (OCT) led to the foundation of Compact Imaging.

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.

OCT Machine

An optical coherence tomography machine. Image via Topcon

“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.

According to Bogue, these biometrics are relatively easy to gather but the information isn’t vital, and users may or may not pay attention to what their device is telling them.

‘What’s needed is a move from want-to-know biometrics to need-to-know biometrics. So, instead of interesting, these things are vital’

As anyone with an unused gym membership will tell you, consumers’ interest in their health and wellbeing from a recreational perspective comes and goes. Bogue estimates that Fitbit is losing 40pc of its users within 12 months of buying a device, and there is research that backs up this claim.

“That’s a really difficult turnover rate to survive,” says Bogue. “What’s needed is a move from want-to-know biometrics to need-to-know biometrics. So, instead of interesting, these things are vital.”

Fitbit Surge wearable tracking

The Fitbit Surge is the kind of wearable tracking that Don Bogue calls ‘want-to-know’ biometrics

The kind of need-to-know information Bogue suggests is the user’s heart rate, glucose level, respiration rate, or indicators that they are going blind. A device with these critical monitoring capabilities would be purposeful, practical, even essential.

What’s more, the ability to easily collate and share the information creates added value. For example, if you share these measurements on your personal health and welfare with the healthcare professional treating you.

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 we were making another Fitbit or another Jawbone, I don’t believe we would have succeeded’

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.

“If we were making another Fitbit, or another Jawbone, or any of those things, or sensors that worked in those devices, I don’t believe we would have succeeded,” says Bogue. “But our ability to deliver clinically useful information to individuals and healthcare providers is a big win, and our investors buy into that completely.”

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.

iPhone 6 fingerprint scanning

Apple’s iPhone 6 uses Touch ID, a fingerprint recognition feature Don Bogue appreciates but finds limited. Photo by ymgerman via Shutterstock

There are other benefits to sub-surface fingerprint scanning. Bogue explains how, as we age, our fingerprints will wear away and, even day-to-day, our fingertips can wear or get contaminated, all of which would make a surface-level fingerprint scan redundant.

Hogan was conscious of the biometric security options for OCT when he filed his original patents back in 2005 and 2006, and here we are in 2015 with a very real market need for secure device access, putting Compact Imaging and its product in an enviable position.

“We think that it’s just a great example of market meeting technology without either the market appreciating the technology or the technology appreciating that the market was there,” says Bogue of this serendipity.

“This happens all the time. It’s a great thing. It’s a huge part of innovation and why you get unicorns or black swans or whatever the analogy is today.”

By fitting neatly into this sweet spot in the device security market, Bogue says Compact Imaging’s MRO work has shifted from the periphery to the centre of the conversation.

‘TOMI are leading worldwide experts in imaging the microvasculature beneath the surface of skin’

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.

Dr Peter O'Brien, IPIC

IPIC’s deputy director Dr Peter O’Brien in the photonics packaging lab. Image via Tyndall National Institute/IPIC

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.”

Accelerating photonics innovation

IPIC is a unique institution, delving deep into a discipline that Bogue describes as not quite in its infancy, but far from reaching its full potential. For him, the ability to make comparatively smaller and cheaper photonics technologies is really just at the ground level.

Describing himself as “an evangelist for the guys at IPIC”, Bogue recognises the potential of this specified R&D environment.

“So often these initiatives seem just completely remote from what we’re experiencing on the ground as a start-up company trying to get traction – not this one. This one makes all kinds of sense, we think. There will be lots of small companies that will want to take advantage of this new platform,” he says.

Don Bogue, CEO, Compact Imaging

Don Bogue, CEO, Compact Imaging

Through IPIC, Compact Imaging has gained access to the necessary people, skills and equipment needed for a miniaturisation project they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford for another two years.

With this accelerated rate of development, Compact Imaging has already begun to identify products that can be developed along the way, using the form factor of the current prototype. This will likely continue with systematic reductions in size opening up broader and broader applications.

To date, Bogue tells me that Compact Imaging has identified 47 “different, interesting applications” for the MRO sensor.

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.”

‘People are frequently surprised to hear that over 80pc of our capital has come from Irish citizens, Irish residents and Irish institutions’

The Irish connection runs deep in Compact Imaging and connects this Silicon Valley company to both native Ireland and its more widely dispersed citizens.

“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.”

Compact Imaging and SFI, Washington

Compact Imaging CEO Don Bogue and An Taoiseach Enda Kenny, TD, with representatives from IPIC, Tyndall and SFI at the 2015 St Patrick’s Day Science Medal event in Washington. Photo via John Harrington/IPIC

Compact Imaging’s IPIC partnership is what led to its involvement with the SFI-sponsored St Patrick’s Day medal event, and it being mentioned in the same breath as IBM and Stryker.

“I don’t know about those other two companies, but we were delighted to be recognised,” says Bogue of the Taoiseach’s comments.

“I thought it was just a perfect distillation of the relationship. A Silicon Valley start-up with great support here in the Valley but truly transformational support from all of these aspects in Ireland – our founder, our research capabilities, our capital. We were the poster child for this initiative, in my view,” he says. “But I’m biased on that.”

Main image by Denys Prykhodov via Shutterstock

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.