Penn Center for Innovation

I-Corps Blog: SphereVis, LLC

Posted on July 17, 2015 — Kat Hinkel

Week 1

SphereVis LLC is developing a simple, generic, optical super-resolution method of imaging biological and photonic structures that can overcome the spatial resolution limitations of microscopes. The technology SphereVis is developing can provide two- to three-fold enhanced spatial resolution capabilities.

The imaging resolution of a standard optical microscope is limited to ~250 nm.  Improved optical imaging resolution would enable better intra-cellular imaging for medical diagnoses and therapies.  Our company is developing novel microscope cover slides composed of arrays of high-index microspheres embedded in elastomers, such as polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS). When the cover slides are placed over the specimen, each microsphere acts as an auxiliary lens, enhancing the spatial resolution provided by the users’ current microcopy setup by a factor of two to three. In addition to medical research and clinical diagnostic applications, this technology can be used for forensic imaging, materials surface characterization and industrial manufacturing [QA departments].

Week 2

We conducted two interviews with product developers for two potential customer segments needing higher resolution optical microscopy:  endoscopists and material scientists.  As reported by the endoscopy product developer, we learned that higher resolution is needed to allow better bladder cancer diagnosis.   Higher resolution optical microscopy is needed by materials scientists to enable faster quality control and assurance, during both product development and manufacturing, of specialized material surfaces with nanostructures for catalytic process enhancements.  Currently material scientists use electron microscopy which has long turn around times; they need a faster method to visualize surface features from 100 nm to 250 nm.  The interviewee asked when he could try our method!!

Week 3

We conducted 10 interviews this week, focusing on customer segments 1) diagnostic medical clinicians and 2) medical researchers, both currently using optical and other imaging methods in research and patient care.  We tested the following two value propositions: 1) Simple low-cost higher resolution imaging enables better clinical diagnoses; and 2) Microscope slide format enables high resolution imaging applications.  From the diagnostic clinicians, we learned that higher resolution is not needed for standard anatomical pathology slide interpretation, but is needed for diagnosing hematopathology and kidney biopsies, and potentially for speeding up the process of whole slide scanning / digitization.  From the medical researchers, we learned much: 1) Confocal imaging is gold standard, but is slow, involves complicated imaging deconvolution techniques, requires scheduling of use, and is expensive.  These researchers are willing to pay 3x more for cover slips which would reduce need to high resolution confocal imaging.  2) There is a need for real-time high resolution imaging of intracellular processes, especially for pharmaceutical research into new drug delivery methods, including nanoparticle tracking.  3) High value is seen in our method if we can deliver on low-cost, simplicity, ease-of-use, and reducing need for expensive confocal imaging systems.

Week 4

We conducted four interviews this week, two researchers, one potential manufacturing partner, and one CEO of company who has successfully used the I-Corps process to develop the company’s business model.  We also developed our first customer architype and began to understand customer types.  A pathologists told us that extra resolution would be a benefit to localize intracellular proteins, saving time and money at core microscopy facility to achieve more accurate cancer diagnoses.  A cardiac researcher needs better imaging performance than confocal to visualize beating heart muscle.  Potential manufacturing partner has developed a method which may allow for prototype manufacturing.  CEO of I-Corps graduate company urged us to dive deeply quickly but be prepared to pivot several times!!

Week 5

We conducted three interviews this week.  Additional pathology interview confirmed that improved resolution not needed for standard pathology, but higher resolution needed for diagnoses related to nuclear, cytoplasmic features, and there is need faster digitization of pathology slides and better software tools for feature extraction.  There is no need for higher resolution imaging for companies developing industrial color measurement and standardization tools.  We developed our first customer workflow map and Value Proposition Canvas.

Week 6

We prepared our work plan report and presentation, which summarized our learnings over the first six weeks of the I-Corps program.

Our Key Learnings [which we would not have learned without going out and talking with customers]:

1) Confocal imaging is the high-resolution standard for oncology research, but it is slow, difficult to schedule, and overkill for just high-resolution [when 3D not needed];

2) Current high- and super-resolution imaging is too slow to image intracellular processes in real time; critical need in drug delivery and validation to image nanoparticle processes in real time.  Real-time imaging needed to better understand cardiac cell physiology; and

3) Critical need in material science product development and quality control to more easily image surface structures between 100nm and 1000nm.

Our Next Steps:

Customer Discovery — We propose to develop additional customer profiles in the pharmaceutical company research area, microscope company manufacturers, materials companies [both R&D and manufacturing/QC, and expand our list of medical center oncology researchers.

Prototype Development — We are just beginning discussions with a startup manufacturer of films of nanoparticle and microparticle arrays, and we hope to be able to develop more regular and reproducible microsphere cover slips leveraging this technology.

Category: i-corps, i-corps-team-posts