Associate Professor Hwang Zhi-Wei,
Professor Ho Khek-Yu
Co-founders of Endofotonics.
The journey from innovation to commercialization is filled with relentless challenges. It is even more so for bootstrapped academia-based innovation ventures. Hence, the unveiling of the start-up medical technology company, Endofotonics Pte. Ltd. in Singapore on 26th Aug 2013 was more than just a seminal moment for its founders, Associate Professor Hwang Zhi-Wei, and Professor Ho Khek-Yu, both from the National University of Singapore. Culminating from more than 10 years of research and innovation, their advanced in-vivo molecular diagnostic system (IMDX™) is set to profoundly change the way diagnosis of gastrointestinal cancers are made today. And the transformation will be one that is much anticipated because the molecular diagnostic capability of the IMDX™ system not only makes diagnosis of gastrointestinal lesions easier and faster, but enables the diagnosis to be accomplished during an ongoing endoscopy investigation procedure, without the need of using disease-related biomarkers or cumbersome application of dyes to the body tissue, as would other available advanced endoscopy imaging techniques. The real-time diagnosis allows the endoscopist to make on-site decisions — whether the lesion needs to be biopsied, and if so, where to biopsy; whether the lesion needs to be resected, and if so, how much to resect. Best of all, the endoscopist does not need to be trained in making the diagnosis as the system displays the diagnosis intelligently.
The IMDX™ system was entirely developed in the National University of Singapore (NUS) with Associate Professor Hwang Zhi Wei and his team of engineers at the Department of Bioengineering developing the Raman spectroscopy-led technology for the endoscopic system, and Professor Ho Khek-Yu and his clinical team providing constant evaluation and patients’ data to train the system to suit the end user’s needs. The IMDX™ system comprises a confocal Raman spectroscopic probe, a spectrophotometry, and a customized spectral analysis software. The spectrophotometer captures distinct molecular-specific spectral “fingerprints” of biological tissues when they are interrogated by light. The optical spectrum due to inelastic Raman scattering of photons are gathered and processed by an in-built proprietary software which helps differentiate diseased tissue from normal ones. In this way, biochemical transformations in cancer-activated cells could be detected even before morphological changes are apparent. Hence, diagnosis of early precancerous changes is made possible. The diagnosis based on the IMDX™ system is objective and qualitative, making it operator-independent, although it does require the skill and knowledge of a trained endoscopist to conduct the scanning. This sets it apart from conventional endoscopic imaging systems which depends on the endoscopist’s visual recognition of suspicious lesions, and subsequent acquisition of biopsy specimens for further histopathologic examination.
For the two academic entrepreneurs, the thought of spinning off a company to commercialize the technology didn’t come suddenly. Remarkable results from early clinical trials demonstrating the system’s diagnostic capability had spurred much interest in industry acquisition of the technology. Believing in the distinctive diagnostic capability of the system and its ability to fulfil unmet needs in in-vivo clinical diagnostics, the duo at NUS decided to spin off the innovative technology to commercialize the IMDX™ system. This was made possible with the excellent support from the NUS Industry Liaison Office (ILO), NUS Enterprise, which provided strategic directions in the spinning out of the technology, and offered expertise in protection of the group’s key assets — the intellectual properties. With the help of NUS ILO, the inventors filed 6 patents on the innovation, which NUS now licensed exclusively to Endofotonics Pte Ltd.
While the allure of spinning off a technology company is exhilarating for any innovator, the venture enroute to market is not an easy matter. The company would have to navigate well the path of development and commercialization in a highly competitive and complex medical technology business environment, right from outset. They would also have to race against time to come out with their first market-ready system soonest possible. First of all, to accelerate the path to commercialization, a dedicated team of highly motivated individuals that share the aspirations of the company must be quickly formed. Despite having to navigate the many challenges vis-à-vis the start-up’s lean capital at that time, the founders of Endofotonics succeeded in attracting a small entrepreneurial team with traits and skillsets that not only complement each other but collectively match the needs for the development of both the product and the business. The team, which include engineers experienced in the technology, regulatory personnel, medical and industry advisors, and a business personnel together put in place a concrete engineering and business developmental plan. Undertakings include the setting of strategic development priorities, acquiring venture capital and alignment of the start-up’s financial and human resources for successful take-off of the new business venture. Under the leadership of the astute founders, the company has successfully secured government seed funding.
The nascent start-up company aims to produce a design freeze version of the IMDX™ system by end 2015. Further clinical trials to validate the clinical utility of the new system will proceed thereafter. When the commercial version of the IMDX™ system is ready for clinical use, it is expected that it would bring favorable enhancement to patient-care by shortening diagnostic turnaround time, lowering cancer investigation cost, and enables faster diagnosis of gastrointestinal cancer, including pre-cancer, thereby improve patients’ prognosis.
About the Authors
Associate Professor Hwang Zhi-Wei, and Professor Ho Khek-Yu are co-founders of Endofotonics. Associate Professor Hwang is from the NUS Department of Biomedical Engineering, while Professor Ho is from the NUS Department of Medicine.