The Pillcam, the gastro-intestinal endoscopy video device developed by Given Imaging, is more than just a better diagnostic system for doctors; it’s the fulfillment of a Biblical prophecy, said its inventor, Dr. Gabi Iddan. “The Pillcam was based on military technology,” Iddan told the Times of Israel in an interview. “It was a good example of how we shall beat our swords into plowshares and other useful devices, as the Hebrew prophets predicted.”
As such, Given Imaging, the company formed to develop and sell the Pillcam, was a very Israeli firm. “Too bad it no longer is,” said Iddan, commenting on the company’s 2013 exit, when Irish medical device maker Covidien paid $860 million. “I was opposed to the sale. It was unfortunate and unnecessary.”
Although his “baby” has left home, Iddan is as proud as can be for the work he did on what has become one of the hallmarks of Israeli technology – and a model for many of the medical device and medical technology start-ups that followed, and one of the originators of the idea that technology developed in the IDF could be used for civilian purposes.
Today, of course, start-ups involved in everything from cyber-security to network technology to mobile gaming boast that they have graduates of elite IDF technology groups, like the 8200 communications unit, but the idea was largely unheard of in 1980, when Iddan came up with the idea for the Pillcam.
As such, Iddan’s Pillcam was a major breakthrough technology for Israel – which is why he was chosen to light of one of the twelve ceremonial torches that inaugurated Independence Day in Israel Wednesday night. The torches are usually lit by individuals who have made a significant contribution to Israeli life, with the theme this year focusing on individuals who have made “breakthrough innovations” in science, technology, business, and culture.
“I had been involved in military work based on optics, and after speaking with an Israeli doctor named Eitan Skapa, who described the challenges in using traditional endoscopies, I realized that the optics work I was doing could provide an alternative solution,” said Iddan. He started working on the idea as a side project in Israel Military Industries (Rafael), where he was employed, but eventually the project got too big for IMI’s labs – and Iddan struck out on his own, with Given Imaging established in 1997.
Cameras were first used on endoscopes in the early 1960s, but they could only be attached to rigid device – and were really unfit for use on the small intestine, said Iddan. “The average small intestine is 6 or 7 meters (over 20 feet) long,” so even when flexible camera-attached endoscopes came out in 1980, they still couldn’t explore very far. “After I met with Dr. Skapa, I realized that an independently moving camera exploring the small intestine would be the best solution.”
It was really a matter of “shrinking” the missiles that Iddan was working with to the size of a small, ingestible pill with a camera attached – a technology he began working on in the 1980s, but was not really technically feasible until the late 1990s, when miniaturized cameras and transmitters (to send the image viewed by the camera to a nearby computer) became economically and technically feasible. Iddan was able to perfect the first version of the Pillcam in 2000, and in 2001 the device received FDA approval. The rest, Iddan said, is history.
With the Given technology, patients swallow a tiny color camera that is cleverly hidden inside a pill that does not get broken down or absorbed by the body. The camera transmits data to a computer, which reconstructs the image of the patient’s insides on the screen. Over 2 million patients have been given Pillcams since the product came on the market, and with over 600 registered and pending patents, Given’s had a close to 90% market share on gastro-intestinal endoscopy video devices – with prospects for many more similar products – when Covidien bought the company out in December 2013.
A buyout that Iddan feels should never have happened. “I don’t know what the fate of the company would have been had it remained in Israeli hands, but there was really no reason for the sale,” he said. “We were making money, and the company was continuing to develop.”
Reticent to say why the company was sold, Iddan attributed the decision to “forces which could not be stopped,” which, upon further prompting, turned out to be investors who decided that they could not turn down the nearly-billion dollars Covidien was offering.
But what’s done is done, and Iddan now looks to the future – and to the next great innovations in Israeli medical technology, which he believes will come from the life sciences area, including brain research, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and others. “
We can thank big data for this to a great extent,” he said. “In the past, life sciences was an experimental science, with scientists basing conclusions on evidentiary studies and the like, which were often contradicted by other research. Today, we are gathering large amounts of data, enabling us to make analyses in a way that was previously impossible. This new data enables us to treat all sorts of diseases and problems in ways that were never possible before – and these new methods of treatment will yield solutions that we could never have envisioned before.”