Moving imaging technologies to the market

SBIR grantees Simon Barriga, PhD and Peter Soliz, PhD get a "second education"

Originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of ARVONews

Shortly after submitting multiple National Eye Institute (NEI) Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) applications and ARVO Annual Meeting abstracts, Simon Barriga, PhD, and Peter Soliz, PhD, sat down with ARVONews to talk about their company, VisionQuest Biomedical.

SBIR2
Peter Soliz, PhD, (left) and Simon Barriga, PhD, of VisionQuest
Biomedical. Soliz is the president and CEO; Barriga is the chief
research scientist.

Barriga, chief research scientist, and Soliz, president and CEO, discuss the past, present and future of their startup.

ARVONews: How did VisionQuest Biomedical get started?

Barriga: Pete and I had been working together in the private sector for many years before VisionQuest. He had an idea for creating a system for diabetic retinopathy screening, so he left the company we were working for, submitted an SBIR application and that’s what got the company started.

Soliz: I met Simon 12 years ago, when he was a brand new grad student at the University of New Mexico. There was a certain amount of serendipity, running into Simon and his professor at the time. Both were specialists in computer-aided image analysis, and it was a matter of applying what they were already doing to a specific problem I was interested in — diabetic retinopathy. This collaboration resulted in technologies that were patented with the university and that were the foundation of VisionQuest Biomedical.

ARVONews: What products does VisionQuest have coming down the pipeline? 

Barriga: The furthest along is our software to detect diabetic retinopathy from images taken with a retinal camera, called the Diabetic Retinopathy Referral Analysis Computer System (DR-RACS).

The software works with cameras on the market right now. The process is that a photographer takes an image of a patient’s retina at a primary care physician’s office; our software then processes that image. We can triage that patient by determining if they’re OK or if they need to visit an optometrist or an ophthalmologist for further care.

Another project is to develop our own lowcost, portable retinal camera. Our goal is to create a small camera that would be easy to use by a medical assistant and would cost under $3,000. Eventually, we’d like to take the camera and combine it with all the software we’re developing and integrate it into one solution.

Finally, we have some other projects at different stages of development. We are developing software to detect retinopathy of prematurity. We are also testing software to detect vascular abnormalities in the retina that can be a sign of cardiovascular disease, as well as software to detect signs of malaria in the retina.

ARVONews: Do you have a timeline for getting DR-RACS on the market?

Soliz: We currently have a working prototype, and we have a clinical study that is ongoing. We are collecting data from several hundred subjects with several different cameras and retina specialists reading the images. We are going to use that data to validate our performance and form the basis of our submission to the Federal Drug Administration (FDA). The goal is to have the submission for the FDA early next year.

ARVONews: SBIR grants are extremely competitive. What do you think makes VisionQuest stand out to the reviewers?

Barriga: When we started, we were approaching the medical problems purely from an engineering point of view. We did not know all the barriers — clinical, regulatory, reimbursement — that stand between technology and commercialization.

And that was reflected in some of the early, unsuccessful grants we wrote. Now, we have a much more holistic view of what needs to be done to move a technology to the marketplace, and provide all that information — economics, medical need, commercial potential — in our SBIR proposals. The reviewers are becoming more and more knowledgeable about these commercialization issues, and they need to see we are prepared to overcome them.

ARVONews: Besides the SBIR grants, where else does VisionQuest receive its funding?

Soliz: So far, we have run almost exclusively on SBIR grants. But, we cannot expect the SBIR program to take us to the next step, which is getting through the regulatory process with the FDA. In some cases, the money required to do that can be on the order of $3 million – $5 million. That really requires finding outside investors. Fortunately, we are currently talking to a number of potential investors that are interested in helping us get to that next step.

I have found that developing an elevator pitch, maybe two minutes long, to convince an investor to make a 30-minute appointment with us has been very important. Once we have that appointment, Simon and his crew comes in to convince investors that we have a technology that will sell.

ARVONews: That must require a very different type of talk than what you would give at an ARVO Annual Meeting.

Barriga: Yes, and it was difficult to learn how to give those talks. You have to be prepared to answer questions of a different nature, things an academic would not ask. I had to learn how to describe the value of our technology through the medical problem it would solve and how much money people could pay to get our solution. It took several years of hanging around where people were giving these types of talks and listening. It has been a second education, really — after the PhD.