UI engineers making cells easier to see

UI engineers making cells easier to see

New product lets researchers get images of them without killing them in process

CHAMPAIGN — Biological researchers can get faster, more sensitive images of live cells and tissues thanks to a company building on technology developed at the University of Illinois.

The company, Phi Optics, recently launched a system that helps scientists using optical microscopes to get highly accurate images fast.

The new system, CellVista Q1000, is priced at $100,000 and targeted at life sciences researchers in academia and the biopharmaceutical industry.

A big advantage for researchers is they can get images of cells without killing them in the process, said Gabriel Popescu, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the UI and the company's CEO.

Otherwise, researchers would have to use dyes or fluorescence to get the contrast needed for viewing cells.

But using the CellVista Q1000, researchers can watch cells continuously over long periods of times and get a better feel for how cancer cells multiply and grow.

"Monitoring them noninvasively is a great feature," Popescu said.

Phi Optics recently delivered a system to ETH Zurich, a university in Switzerland, and is in talks with several biopharmaceutical companies and a national laboratory about delivering others, Popescu said.

Founded in 2009, Phi Optics opened an office in EnterpriseWorks, the UI's business incubator, in 2012. Today, it employs two and expects to add three more in research and development to its staff later this year.

"We plan to have 20 units sold in 2014 and 50 units sold next year," Popescu said. "That might be a little aggressive. We'll see."

This summer, the company plans to prepare for market a fully automatic version of its system — a step-up from the "more hands-on," manual interface available now, he said.

Popescu, 42, was born in Romania and came to the United States in 1997 to do doctoral work at the Center for Research and Education in Optics and Lasers at the University of Central Florida.

He got his doctorate in 2002 and did postdoctoral work in spectroscopy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before joining the UI faculty in 2007.

Phi Optics' 38-year-old chief operating officer, Catalin Chiritescu, is also from Romania. He received a master's degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Rochester in 2000 and a doctoral degree in materials science from the UI in 2010.

Popescu said he decided to start the company after the UI's Office of Technology Management processed a dozen patents for his lab and it became clear that a commercial version of the technology could help researchers make discoveries.

The technology used in the CellVista Q1000 system is "quantitative phase imaging," in which two different beams of light are used and the phase difference between the beams is quantified.

Phi Optics got a $150,000 Small Business Innovation Research Phase 1 grant from the National Science Foundation to build a commercial prototype last year.

In June, the company got $250,000 in seed funding from a group led by Champaign-based Serra Ventures, with participation by IllinoisVentures and Newport Holdings.

The CellVista Q1000 system was unveiled at the BIOS 2014 biomedical optics conference earlier this month in San Francisco.

Popescu said the technology has applications not only in the life sciences, but also in clinical diagnosis and materials testing.

He said he believes the technology can have a big impact on research into prostate and breast cancer, for example.

The technology can also be used to detect nanoscale defects in semiconductor wafers, he added.

Company up for award at Innovation Celebration

URBANA — Phi Optics is one of 24 companies and individuals nominated for honors at tonight's annual Innovation Celebration.

The event, which recognizes entrepreneurship and technological innovation in Champaign County, is scheduled from 5 to 8 p.m. in the auditorium of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications building, 1205 W. Clark St., U.

The Champaign County Economic Development Corp. and several units of the University of Illinois are among the organizers of the event. Parkland College presents an Innovation in Engagement Award as part of the event.

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