Ground Breaking Microscope Technology Spins out of UT Austin

By LAURA LOREK
Reporter with Silicon Hills News

Martin Poenie, PhDs in molecular biosciences at the University of Texas at Austin, discussing his company's new microscope technology.

Martin Poenie, PhDs in molecular biosciences at the University of Texas at Austin, discussing his company’s new microscope technology.

The birth of a new microscope industry is taking place at the University of Texas at Austin that can change the way scientists view living cells at the smallest stage.

On Tuesday night at the Austin Chamber of Commerce, a small group attending UT’s Startup Studio got a seek peek at the ground breaking technology.

Martin Poenie and Jeffrey Kuhn, PhDs in molecular biosciences and Thomas Milner, PhD in biomedical engineering at UT Austin have created a startup, Spectrapol Imaging, to build and market its patented microscope technology. UT paid to develop the technology and holds the patent which the startup has licensed. The group created a microscope that uses polarized light images that can show the molecular structure of things in a living cell.

“There’s a world of applications,” Poenie said. “The power of it is impressive.”

Spectrapol Imaging was one of three early-stage professor led startups spinning out of UT Austin that pitched their ventures to an invite-only crowd of about 40 people including angel investors and other interested parties from the Austin technology community. It’s part of a monthly series conducted by the Innovation Center at UT designed to shine a spotlight on new technology and companies emerging from the university.

“We’re trying to help Austin be a better Silicon Valley and one of the ways we do that is to encourage professors and students to start companies,” said Bob Metcalfe, professor of Innovation at UT. “Because we think startups are a very effective way to innovate and have an impact on research and on the world.”

Metcalfe, Louise Epstein and Ben Dyer run the Innovation Center. They have identified a funding gap between research and creating a startup with a product. The center will be making innovation grants to bridge that gap, Metcalfe said.

The Austin Chamber of Commerce, WeWork and the Office of Technology Commercialization at UT Austin sponsor the monthly events.

Spectrapol is creating a whole new market for microscopes, Poenie said. It has developed an attachment that can go into a standard microscope. It includes a light source, known as a hot spot lamp coupled with specially designed optical modules, Poenie said.

“You don’t have to buy a whole microscope for it to work,” Poenie said.

The Spectrapol microscope provides cellular detail invisible to standards microscopes, he said. It can display structures that are as tiny as 25 nanometers in diameter and that’s unprecedented for a light source microscope, Poenie said. For example, the technology can provide high resolution images of T-lymphocytes killing a cancer cell in real time without the microscope harming the cell. It can even show viruses emerging from living cells. In fact, the U.S. Center for Disease Control is interested in using the technology to examine how the Ebola virus attacks living cells.

One of the unique features of the microscope is that it doesn’t depend on fluorescents to show objects. Most advances in microscopes depend on fluorescents. The UT technology relies entirely on optics and the physics of light, Poenie said.
Overall, the microscopy market is growing, Poenie said. This technology has applications for In Vitro Fertilization, identifying and working with viruses like Ebola and in the nanotechnology field. They also think there is a market for the light source.

Spectrapol is now looking for investors to help them take the technology to market, Poenie said. The market is in the hundreds of thousands, he said. The microscope attachment would sell for $35,000 to $50,000, he said.

Matthew Cowperthwaite, director of research and technology at St. David’s Neuroscience department, presented TyPos.

Matthew Cowperthwaite, director of research and technology at St. David’s Neuroscience department, presented TyPos.

The next presenter, Matthew Cowperthwaite, director of research and technology at St. David’s Neuroscience department, presented TyPos. He has developed the company with Andrew D. Ellington, professor of biochemistry at UT.

TyPos developed keyboard analytics or keystroke analytics software aimed at detecting the early onset of Parkinson’s Disease by analyzing typing patterns.
TyPos uses cell phones and standard computer keyboards to capture the way people type and to detect patterns in that typing.

“It shows a lot about your emotional state and disease state,” Cowperthwaite said. “We’re able to capture keystroke timings at a millisecond recognition.”
The software also measures hold times on keys and how long a typist goes between pressing keys, Cowperthwaite said. He sees a lot of applications in the consumer and healthcare space.

The current diagnosis for Parkinson’s Disease is 50 percent accurate and the TyPos software could improve that diagnosis and lead to earlier treatment for patients and increased quality of life, he said.

TyPos is looking for a $100,000 investment to take the current keystroke software it has created and turn it into a consumer version, Cowperthwaite said. He compared the software to Luminosity’s brain games with 70 million users. It’s a way for people to monitor their health, he said.

Pradeep Ashok, a research scientist at UT, presented r5.

Pradeep Ashok, a research scientist at UT, presented r5.

The last presenter, Pradeep Ashok, a research scientist at UT, presented r5, a startup focused on the oil and gas industry and drilling automation. r5 drilling makes drilling automation software, Ashok said.

“To drill a well it takes about 100 people on land. Off shore multiply that by five times. No two wells are the same,” Ashok said. “Data is so disorganized. We have a solution.”

The startup aggregates all the data from an oil well and makes automation possible, he said. Its first product is the drilling advisor software. It can show a company where to operate and drill in a region, Ashok said. It ultimately saves companies time, he said.

“Time is really money when it comes to drilling,” Ashok said. Its software can save at least 10 percent in drilling time, he said. The software costs $100 per day or a company can license it for $25,000 to $35,000 a year. Even though the price of a barrel of oil has dipped below $30, an estimated 1,800 rigs still operate every day in the world with 571 rigs operating in the U.S., according to Baker Hughes, an oilfield services company.

“We plan to revolutionize drilling,” Ashok said.

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Correction: This article originally incorrectly reported the oil rig count for the world as the oil rig count for the U.S.

Comments

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    • Arnold Estrada says:

      Hi Cheryl

      Your technology is ingenious! However, I believe the real value in Spectrapol’s method is for contrast enhancement. I don’t see the two technologies as even competitive. I don’t think atomic level magnification will be of much use to microbiologists or even molecular biologists. However I can see how it would be extremely valuable in other applications.

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