In 2020, PhotoniCare’s then-CEO Ryan Shelton accepted the SPIE Prism Award for the best healthcare product with a recognition of his own, a speech that traced some of his early — and pivotal — career advancements to his relationship with SPIE, an organization that offers an “absolute great opportunity for students and companies alike.” And Shelton’s relationship with SPIE has deep roots indeed: When he was a PhD student at Texas A&M, Shelton’s thesis advisor Brian Applegate, now an SPIE Fellow, encouraged Shelton to attend SPIE Photonics West, particularly for its networking opportunities. “He was very interested not only in my research,” says Shelton, “but also in my professional development.” That sparked Shelton’s far-reaching interactions with SPIE. He got involved in founding the university’s SPIE Student Chapter — or rejuvenating it, really: “I think it had existed years previously, but it was dormant, so we resuscitated it,” he says. The “we” included current Chan Zuckerberg Imaging Lead and SPIE Fellow Member Kristen Maitland, then the chapter’s faculty sponsor. “She was fantastic as a chapter leader,” says Shelton, “so very supportive of the cool stuff that we got to do.”
That “cool stuff” included optics education, outreach, and demos in rural Texas; it also included levering an SPIE grant to run a student-led bioengineering conference with Stephen Boppart as the headline speaker. “Even then,” notes Shelton, “Steve was huge in the field. I invited him to come and speak and, as part of that process, got to know him a little.” Shelton successfully applied for and received a post-doc position in Boppart’s lab which took him to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), and, ultimately, led to Shelton and Boppart founding PhotoniCare together. That sequence of events, says Shelton, “was a really cool thing that happened directly from that SPIE grant and those SPIE connections.”
Another element of the SPIE ecosystem, the industry-focused SPIE Startup Challenge, offered an engaging opportunity for Shelton and Boppart’s nascent entrepreneurial venture; the pitch competition, held annually at Photonics West, celebrates new photonics-focused businesses, products, and technologies in healthcare and deep tech. “Steve is just brilliant and prolific on ideas around clinical translation,” says Shelton. “For both of us, a lot of what we had to learn in the early stages was the business side of things.” Working to get up to speed on things like product-market fit and customer needs, Shelton and Boppart explored a variety of programs, one of which meant participating in — and winning — the 2018 SPIE Startup Challenge. Getting that exposure, receiving knowledgeable feedback on their pitch, and gaining industry insight into how to present their business plan was a game-changer.
As Challenge winners, they attended the SPIE Prism Awards and then participated in that competition, scooping the top healthcare-product prize with their optical coherence tomography (OCT) diagnostic tool for ear infections, then called the TOMi Scope. Other high-profile PhotoniCare achievements have included successful rounds of funding, numerous grants, and a recent FDA clearance last October for their re-branded OtoSight Middle Ear Scope.
For Shelton, one of the most compelling aspects of PhotoniCare’s technology is its universal need. “One thing that I've always appreciated about this disease state is that everybody can relate to it: nearly everyone on the planet has had an ear infection, so they understand the challenges around it. It's not a problem you need to spend a lot of time convincing people why it's important; that’s a small thing, but it just makes it that much more relatable. And then it's just a matter of how effectively you tell your story, and what your execution looks like. I think as long as you're doing both of those things, it positions you really well for success.”
The startup circus always includes a plethora of perpetual challenges. “You’re always riding a fine line between focus and flexibility,” says Shelton, who points to the rebranding of PhotoniCare’s flagship product as an example. “When we raised our Series A funding, basically in the heat of COVID in late 2020, we brought on a chief commercial officer, Jeff Hydar. He’s a phenomenal guy with a lot of experience, and one of the things he wanted to do was some testing on the TOMi Scope name to see whether something else might resonate better.” Name searches and surveys and customer testing followed, and a new moniker, OtoSight, rose quickly to the top.
“I think we were at a significant inflection point of the company in the sense that we were moving from a purely development into the first phase of commercialization,” says Shelton. “And you're going to have changes when that happens, especially if you've got a primarily scientist-and-engineer-focused team that developed the product. I saw that as a necessary step: as we’re growing, what does it look like on the commercial side and how do we optimize for that?” But he also admits that the change was an initial struggle for him: “I was a big fan of the original name and branding, so I had to be kind of brought along. But I'm also a data guy: as soon as I saw the feedback, I was like, ‘Okay, here are the customer surveys, here's what people are saying.’ If you're not learning, you're not going to succeed, so you should always be open to changing your view on just about anything.”
And more changes are afoot: PhotoniCare hired a veteran, commercial-stage CEO, Cary Vance, and Shelton is taking on the CTO mantle, re-embracing his engineering roots. “It gives me the freedom to take a look at how and where we expand this platform,” he says. “What other indications, what other diseases can we tackle with this low-cost OCT imaging platform that we've developed and commercialized?” That, Shelton notes, was always part of the plan: The technology was intentionally built to be translatable for other uses. “Rather than building an expensive and high-performance imaging system for chronic care in expensive specialties and legacy OCT markets, we decided to reinvent the platform, provide a diagnostic that is affordable, small, and simple enough to use so that we could explore other diseases you just couldn't with a large, desk-sized, $50,000 OCT system.”
That was PhotoniCare’s mission and vision from the start: to take OCT, a very successful yet expensive, bulky, and complex technology, and open that up to the rest of healthcare. “How do we get it into a pediatrician’s office or an urgent care facility or retail care?” says Shelton. “That’s what our focus has been, and now we're looking at how we expand off of this platform that we've built.”
Needless to say, Shelton’s excited about PhotoniCare’s future. “There is a lot of room to grow here,” he says. “Our founding team has already published papers on using a single system to image eyes, ears, teeth, oral mucosa, and skin.” Or, as the opening slide of his SPIE Startup Challenge pitch proclaimed: “A diagnostic platform for primary care clinicians — beginning with ear health.”
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