A small team of researchers based in the hills outside Jerusalem is designing technology that could potentially save thousands of women’s lives per year. The company behind this, Illumigyn, is using advanced imaging technology originating in the Israeli military to develop medical hardware that gynecologists could use to better identify and treat cervical cancer and other diseases in routine inspections for women.
“The product is ready, and this is a game-changing experience for the patient, for the quality of service, and for the ability to treat women, not only at the point of injury, or problem, but also through their entire life,” said Ran Poliakine, the serial entrepreneur funding the project.
The company is working under Poliakine’s guidance on a campus near his home in Neve Ilan, a small moshav about a 20-minute drive west of Jerusalem. The campus is home to 12 companies supported by Poliakine, who made his name with the wireless charging company Powermat Technologies, which he founded in 2006.
Most of the staff on the campus are Israeli veterans of the high tech industry with experience in companies like Intel and Microsoft.
“We’re not young here anymore,” Poliakine said. “That brings a lot of nuance to what we do and how we do it.”
Five of the companies at Neve Ilan, including Illumigyn, are health-related.
Years of Water produces a household-based system for purifying up to 30,000 liters of water, which Poliakine describes as a clean water solution for the average African family. QinFlow heats liquids to body temperature in seconds to allow transfusions in emergency situations without the risk of hypothermia. Wellsense uses conducive fibers woven into textiles to give nurses and doctors information on immobile patients and to help prevent bedsores.
Besides the health companies, there is Planet of the Apps, which designs games for mobile, the Japanese nanotechnology company nanoX Imaging, and Tap Systems, launching a one-handed wearable keyboard this week that the company has been developing quietly for the last 18 months.
Powermat also has an office on the campus. Its software is now widespread but the company is struggling with internal management disputes, and Poliakine now serves as a director and the vice chairman.
He sees the wireless charging industry moving towards monetization and use in the Internet of Things, he said. He expects a monetization model similar to Facebook or Google, where people will get power for free in exchange for something besides currency, such as location information. He thinks wireless charging will be embedded in the home and provide data and analytics to the Internet of Things.
Poliakine and his partners got involved with Illumigyn about three years ago when Lior Greenstein, the company’s founder and CTO who previously worked with Wellsense, came to him with the idea. Poliakine recognized it was a huge risk, he said, but also saw that there was potential to change women’s healthcare. They checked it out, consulted with gynecologists and oncologists, and thought the idea could make it.
“They convinced me that in less than $5 million we can get there,” Poliakine said. “With those companies that we think can go all the way, we’re funding them.”
The company’s signature product, the Gynescope, is a compact imaging device that uses machine vision technologies originally devised by the Israeli military to allow gynecologists to both work and see in a way that was not possible before. It will be used to perform colposcopies, cervical exams, biopsies and other procedures.
Machine vision technology captures images and automatically analyzes them for industrial and other practical applications. Software recognizes pre-programmed features in the image, somewhat like voice recognition technology, but for visual information. When these features are identified the program can trigger different actions.
Illumigyn’s path from IDF technology to high tech start-up is similar to those taken by other Israeli companies. The cyber security company Check Point and the early voicemail management company Comverse have their roots in the intelligence corps’ Unit 8200’s need to listen, for example.
“Check Point, many other companies came from the need of the Israeli army to hear, to listen,” Poliakine said. “Israel had the need to hear but also to see, and see in various wavelengths.”
The technology then moved to the production line, where it can be used for quality assurance. By checking products with a specific wavelength, the systems can spot weaknesses. One of the reasons Intel became so strong in Israel is that the quality assurance processes used by the company were based on some of the existing machine vision technologies, Poliakine said.
The machine vision systems became a low-cost commodity, especially in China.
The founders of Illumigyn are now bringing the technology to gynecology clinics. They developed a camera that looks into the cervical area with different wavelengths of light to identify abnormal tissue.
Cervical cancer is the fourth-most common cancer in women, although the introduction of pap smears has drastically reduced the rate of death from this illness, especially in developed countries. In 2012, about 266,000 women died from the disease, according to the World Health Organization’s World Cancer Report 2014. The disease is especially deadly in developing countries where early detection and treatment are more difficult.
Poliakine believes many of these deaths are preventable. Today’s speculums used by gynecologists to perform checkups are usually disposable, plastic, and outfitted with a fiberoptic light that allows doctors to see, but from a distance, and only in visible light.
“Many of the cervical cancers, many of the irregular patterns in tissue that indicate cancer or other diseases can be easily viewed by fluorescent light, or ultraviolet, or infrared, and the human eye cannot see them,” Poliakine said. “It’s totally subjective and there is a very low screening rate of woman’s health for cervical cancer and for other diseases and for many things that may actually risk lives.”
Illumigyn’s Gynescope looks for diseases while they are still developing, using different light wavelengths. The company took existing technologies, including machine vision systems, and created a sophisticated optical camera that fits inside the handle of a standard speculum used by gynecologists. The video is high-definition, down to the microscopic level, with a camera that cycles through different wavelengths of light. At each wavelength it scans for different irregular patterns. For example, cervical cancer could be in its very early stages just below the surface tissue and invisible to the eye, but visible with infrared light, Poliakine said. Women will visit the gynecologist and go through the checkups in the same way they do now.
They plan to build an image database that will be compared to what gynecologists are seeing in real-time, and suggest to them where there might be a problem. They will be able to compare the images from their patient against an image bank of thousands of other images. The process will be based on existing pattern recognition technology.
“The image in the visible light is helping the doctor to see what’s going on, but really the information is going against a database, to say, ‘Hey, maybe you have a suspicious area here, or maybe you want to take a biopsy from here and not from here,’” Poliakine said.
A small team developed the equipment with input from leaders in the fields of obstetrics and gynecology, mostly based in the United States. They work out of a small office on the Neve Ilan campus and include experts in physics and optics, electronics, algorithms, software and mechanics. The company is managed by CEO Ariel Katz, who has also worked with Powermat and Comverse.
The technology they are using matured in other fields and is mostly five to 10 years old, said Dr. Gilad Davara, a founder of the company and its head of physics. The team was able to bring know-how from other arenas and combine them in a way that was not possible before, when the technology was bulkier and more expensive. The electronics are complicated but cheap and don’t use too much power, Davara said. Too much power, he noted, would make the equipment too hot and unsuitable for medical procedures.
To get a good image the camera needs to find the right area, and their camera can automatically fix position and focus, which is important because patients often move during procedures and women are physiologically different, depending on whether they have given birth, their size, and other factors, Davara said.
Poliakine said there will be four main benefits for women’s health. Gynecologists will be able to see while they work in an entirely new way. They will build an archive of images for each woman, so they can compare her current images to those from her previous visits. They will be able to suggest when there could be a problem, and they will be able to guide physicians through procedures.
A team in India is building an image database already. The equipment has passed clinical trials, but this is not an obstacle for a monitoring device, Poliakine said. The challenge will come when they will have to claim they can prevent diseases. They will not diagnose problems, he stresses, but suggest when there could be problems, and where. Physicians can make an official diagnosis only after doing a biopsy and examining the cells under a microscope.
Today, for instance, a gynecologist who needs to take a biopsy to test for cervical cancer would take several tissue samples. Illumigyn believes its technology will be able to tell doctors from where exactly they should take a sample, and the doctor will be able to both see clearly and perform the biopsy, which was not possible before. They will be able to advise doctors on procedures in real time.
They hope to provide the cameras to clinics for free. One possible business model would have them sell clinics only the custom sterile speculums for use with their equipment. Poliakine calls it the “Gillette” business model, similar to a razor that a customer buys cheaply, but needs to buy blades for long-term. The speculums are already an expense for the clinics so the equipment would come at no additional cost. They are also considering making information from the database available to researchers for a small fee.
On the technology side, Illumigyn has done the work it needs to do, they said. The challenges now are building a database with a sufficient number of images.
So far, the response from the field has been overwhelmingly positive.
“We completed everything in the development phase. The first women are testing, we’re collecting data, and we’re launching the system,” Poliakine said.