Each week, staff writer Paul Wood chats with a high tech entrepreneur. This week, meet RYAN NOLAN, co-founder of and director of clinical development for PhotoniCare. Its inexpensive handheld device can see the middle ear. He has a 2-year-old who has had ear infections, so he knows the drill.
You've been with PhotoniCare since its beginnings in 2013. What motivated you and Ryan Shelton to work on non-invasive medical devices?
It may sound cliche, but as engineers at heart, we really do love to design and build things. And during each of our undergrad and grad school years (at different universities), it developed into a passion for designing and building better medical tools, specifically imaging devices, that improve patient care. But on a deeper level, we're both fathers of children who've been impacted by ear infections. This is both a professional and personal fight for us to improve the lives of our children, as well as those of others who are afflicted by ear disease, by developing a non-invasive, better imaging tool for doctors to easily see inside the ear, and correctly diagnose and appropriately treat the first time.
Enrollment is now open for a volunteer research study at PhotoniCare's lab located at EnterpriseWorks at University of Illinois. Tell us about the free imaging study. How long does it take and does it cause any discomfort?
Our ongoing study is looking for volunteer subjects, both kids and adults, and especially those affected by current or past ear infections. The imaging itself is exactly like getting your ears examined in the doctor's office and only takes a few minutes with little to no discomfort, but now you get to see inside your or your child's ears.
And there's another reward?
Yes, participants able to sit for our brief imaging session will receive a $15 gas card.
How can people enroll in the study?
Contact me via phone or email to discuss any questions and schedule a visit at 847-852-6264 or firstname.lastname@example.org
How does PhotoniCare obtain the clear view of the middle ear without surgery?
Our ClearView device is a handheld designed to be used in the same way as a traditional otoscope (the device your physician uses to look into your ears), but in addition to this old-fashioned view of the eardrum, we use near-infrared light to see through the eardrum and into the middle ear. This type of imaging works very similarly to ultrasound and provides cross-sectional black and white scans of the eardrum, enabling doctors to easily see what's going on behind it, with micron-scale resolution. There are many ear diseases affected by poor diagnostic accuracy and screening because today's tools don't provide a reliable view inside the ear, and it's our goal to fix that.
The handheld device is relatively low-cost for physicians, How did you achieve this?
The imaging technology behind the ClearView is actually the same technology used every day in eye doctors' offices for screening and diagnosis of eye disease. Only we've developed and patented a unique approach where we can package the technology in a handheld form-factor by creatively using components much less expensive than the large, desktop devices with those memorable head/chin-rests that eye doctors use.
Who else is on the team?
We have a total of four full-time employees, three part-time, and one student intern.
How did you become an entrepreneur?
I've always been a creative and ambitious person. That and opportunity really; the right place with the right people at the right time. I came to University of Illinois for two reasons: My wife was in the veterinary medicine program here and I had just finished grad school and two, I wanted to work in the academic lab of Dr. Stephen Boppart, a world-renowned medical imaging expert. Together with Ryan Shelton and a great team of graduate students and staff, we were developing advanced medical imaging devices and made the leap from lab research to human clinical studies with local Carle Hospital. After a few years of very promising results and a number of publications, Steve, Ryan, and I decided what we were developing needed to be advanced into something that everyone afflicted by ear disease could benefit from. As someone who personally, and as a father, has been affected by ear infections, along with my co-founders, we are both personally and professionally driven to see the ClearView brought to market and used by physicians everywhere to easily and accurately diagnose ear disease and better care for their patients.
What's your best advice for someone who's starting up?
As odd as it might sound, my advice would have to be "get out of the office" and "fail fast." Working in a startup, things are changing and moving quickly, so it's best to iteratively test the business and product ideas you're developing by going out and talking with actual people, specifically your potential customers. If something's not going to work, you want to know that sooner rather than later. And though warm introductions from someone in your network are usually best, you'd be surprised how many people will respond to cold calls and emails.
Did you ever make any mistakes in your early years?
Oh certainly! Working in a start-up company, it's best to have a "roll up your sleeves and dive in" work ethic. You're constantly learning and adapting on the job. Since PhotoniCare started, we've undergone a lot of changes and experienced difficulties over the past two years, but we're persistent and resilient together, and continually learning and growing from it all. It definitely helps to have such a supportive network of experienced mentors, colleagues, friends and of course family! The love and encouragement of my wife and daughter mean the world to me and fuel my drive.
TECH TIDBITS ... from RYAN NOLAN
What social media are you on? We're on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
On Facebook I follow: the Pittsburgh Steelers. I'm a big fan.
Favorite app: OmniFocus helps me with my planning.
Book or Kindle? What are you reading right now? Book. Right now, "The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children" by Alison Gopnik.
Do you have any wearable electronics? No, just a basic watch.