Wired In: Catalin Chiritescu

Wired In: Catalin Chiritescu

On Sundays, staff writer Paul Wood spotlights a high-tech difference maker. This week, meet CATALIN CHIRITESCU, Phi Optics' chief operating officer.


Chiritescu, 40, has a doctoral degree in materials science from the University of Illinois in 2010. Phi Optics makes a module that helps scientists using optical microscopes get highly accurate images, giving data about cells, including cancer cells, in real time without altering the experience with dyes and other intrusive testing.

How did you become an entrepreneur?

I had a few job offers. As I was talking to Gabriel Popescu, the founder of Phi Optics, he mentioned that he had a tool that he wanted do something good with, but as a full-time (UI) professor, he needed somebody to get on board. (Other team members include optical engineer Taewoo Kim and contract software writers).

At that time, I had very little real knowledge about how to run a business. We got involved with the National Science Foundation's program for professors who had an idea for a product, Innovation Corps. It puts together a business mentor professor with an entrepreneurial lead, somebody related to the technology. They run steps to decide where the product is feasible.

Did you ever make any mistakes at the beginning?

One of the NSF steps they put you through is get out of the building tomorrow, go to companies or universities and do a cold call. They wanted to weed out of us the idea that we were in some sort of ivory tower. For myself and Dr. Popescu, we had never done this, so we found ourselves a little flustered at times.

With disastrous results?

With a professor in the Bay Area, we went to this person to present our system, and he literally said, "I think you have me confused with somebody else. That's a guy two departments away from here." We apologized and said, "Would you be so kind as to point us to the right person to talk to?"

And did you have to improvise?

In the NSF Innovation Corps program, the team suggested to us that a mockup is always useful to show. People like to touch things. We went to Wal-Mart in Palo Alto (Calif.), bought a Styrofoam cooler, covered it with aluminum tape and put our logo on it. We use pool noodles and stuck them into the cooler as eyepieces. Inside the cooler, we put an iPad that was running a video.

Now that things are working well, tell us about your product development.

We take information from a microscope and transform it into a data set. Now the scientist will have hard numbers about those cells: how big they are, how much they weigh, what is their structure, accurate down to nanometers. We squeeze more information from that image without the need to alter the environment of the cell.

There are two ways of looking at cells when they are alive. One is to use a contrast agent to color them. Like all living organisms, that's not good for them. We provide a live 3-D image without using a contrast agent. You put the cell in its growth medium and just take a picture, saving several steps and making it more accurate.

We create a tomogram, which is like an MRI for cells. We allow scientists to identify a disease, test treatment operations and study the fundamentals of biology faster.

This is useful in cancer research, correct?

They can watch as a drug is added into the culture, and see the effect right away. We tell them: This is how many cells died, these are the effects of the drug, and they can map it. They can see, in three days, we have 50 percent of the cells dead because of the drug.

And there's a market?

We are selling in the United States on both coasts, and in Europe — Norway and Switzerland. We are looking to expand that effort, and are close to completing the current phase of funding, which should help us increase and our marketing and sales exponentially. The challenge that we have, being a new technology, is people haven't heard of it. It's our job to educate our consumers.

How do you like the UI's EnterpriseWorks?

It's a great environment in which businesses can thrive. It offers us a lot of resources.

Tech tidbits ...


Favorite app? Uber.

Social media presence: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn.

Book or Kindle? I'm starting to convert to reading devices, but I still love the feeling of paper.

What are you reading right now? A Paul Wilson novel, "Infernal." Nonfiction, a business book: "Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling High-Tech Products to Mainstream Customers."

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