Will 2011 be seen as a “Tipping Point” for Industrial Contribution to the Advancement of the Field of Optical Coherence Tomography?
In the 1990’s the field of OCT and other interferometric imaging technologies as applied to biomedical imaging was studied by a relatively small set of research groups around the world. It was a fun time and easy to be king of the sandbox for the day and show a shiny new discovery. There were a few startups (three I think) and several commercial component companies that would begrudgingly sell components to OCT researchers, but generally the field was dominated by academic researchers scrounging to find parts from telecom and other markets and altering them with their innovative ideas to work in OCT systems. There was a lot of low hanging fruit for researchers to pick (and patent) and numerous fundamental papers were published that garnered the interest of more academic researchers.
In the 2000’s academic researchers continued to play the biggest role but the emergence of both established companies and startup companies developing OCT systems increased as did the attention of subsystem and component companies interested in selling into both the research and emerging commercial OCT markets. During this decade the component technology improved and enabled the known theoretical advantages of Fourier Domain OCT and in the process gave a massive steroid injection to both the academic and industrial efforts. [As a side note there were a few papers published in 2003 claiming discovery of the SNR advantages of FD-OCT over TD-OCT but the reality is the exact equations governing SS-OCT SNR date back to the 1980’s].
What will happen during the next decade? Today there is a tremendous amount of both commercial and research activity. On the commercial side there are about 50 companies selling, developing, or considering selling OCT systems or subsystems. Some of these companies are very big (e.g. St. Jude with a market cap of $16B) and some are new seedling startups (with a few dollars and big plans). There are probably well over 100 companies selling or considering selling components into the OCT space. Below is a partial list (I did not do any exhaustive search and apologize if I omitted companies). At the recent SPIE Photonics West conference the OCT sessions were one of the highest attended. In addition, the trade show floor was loaded with companies selling or considering selling in the OCT market. The question that arises is will 2011 be seen as the year that industrial research efforts began to dominate progress in the field?
The term dominate may not be appropriate. Further, how could the contribution efforts of academic researchers be compared to industrial efforts anyway? Of course it is very hard to compare the two. Academic researchers often do more fundamental and forward looking work and experiments that can sometimes be “hero experiments” that are one-off and the use of “duct tape” is not prohibited. They are supported with lower cost but very hard working and creative graduate students (kind of a temporary indentured slave some may feel). Industrial R&D efforts are mostly geared toward commercialization efforts aimed to make a profit but are much more costly, require more expensive engineers (who have a weekend life) and robust development and qualification methodologies and “duct tape” is off limits. However this does not mean that the industrial efforts are not advancing the field in a meaningful way. One way to estimate the relative contribution is to look at funding.
A rough estimate is that there are about 25 major OCT academic research groups around the world and perhaps ~100 smaller research groups that have OCT efforts. If we assume about $1M/year to fund the major groups, that translates to about $50M (+/- 3dB) of total world-wide funding. If we look at the industrial efforts and make coarse assumptions for the revenue shipping companies that they have 50% gross margin and plow 30% of that back into R&D and that the startup activities are mainly R&D focused (spending a much higher percentage on R&D), then it is highly likely that the industrial R&D expenditure is well over $50M today. In ophthalmology alone, assuming the worldwide market in 2010 was ~$250M, this would correspond to almost $40M in R&D. The number is probably much higher for ophthalmology as there are over 10 ophthalmic OCT companies and they are all trying to grab market share with superior technology which means higher percentage of R&D expenditures. The dollars spent in industrial R&D for most of the top 50 OCT system and subsystem and component companies is most likely well in excess of $1M/year.
Thus if you imagine going forward in time 10 years into the future and looking back – would 2011 be seen as a pivotal year? The year when industry began to dominate advancement and pace the field of OCT? As a simple example, at the OCT sources session at SPIE Photonics West there was an outstanding talk by the Ludwig Maximillian University Munich group to kick off the session and there were several other excellent academic talks but the majority of the talks in that session were from industry. Sources traditionally have been the heart of OCT systems and often OCT engines are built from the source outward. It would seem that every successful technology like OCT goes through this transition. Today microprocessors, telecommunication systems, jet airplanes, and internet software are all dominated by industry. It does not mean that each of these fields don’t have outstanding academic research groups that continue to help advance the state of the art and provide a great value to commercial and societal advancements and to the students that are being trained in those fields.
If this conjecture is true, that 2011 will be the first year of rough equality between academic and industrial efforts in advancing the field of OCT, what implication, if any, can be dawn? One conclusion could be that if you are thinking about a start-up on OCT you should probably get started soon before this is the land of mainly big iron companies like St. Jude, Volcano, Zeiss, Siemens, Pentax, Olympus, etc. It would be very hard to start a microprocessor company today and compete with Intel. A second conclusion could be pick your academic research topics carefully so as not to compete head to head with a topic that is too close to industrial efforts that may way out gun you from a funding, resources, and speed perspective. Related to this could be to watch out for changes in the tastes of funding agencies for the types of research they will support in the future. A third conclusion could be to investigate collaborating with industrial efforts. A fourth could be to be careful on the things you spend time on patenting in an academic setting. The patent space is very crowded and there is little room for fundamental patents which is where the value is. Further, university licensing offices have big appetites for royalty percentages and industry has very little appetite for the same thing.
Most people do not see this emergence of industrial OCT R&D as a bad thing. Rather it is a good thing. For current and future students in the field there will be lots of good OCT jobs in industry, for established researchers it should be satisfying to see their field mature and there will always be room for exciting academic challenges, and for companies or company want-to-bes there are lots of market opportunities!
OCT System Companies:
Bioptigen, Cannon Medical Systems/Optopol, Carl Zeiss Meditec, Haag-Streit, Heidelberg Engineering, Heliotis, Imalux, LenSx, Lightlab Imaging/St-Jude Medical, LLTech, Michelson Diagnostics, MicroTomography Incorporated, Nikon, Nidek, Novacam Technologies, OptoMedica, Optiphase, Optovue, OPKO/OTI, Santec, Shenzhen Moptium Imaging Technique Co, Thorlabs, Tomey, Tomophase Corporation, … and some I forgot…
OCT System or Subsystem Startup Companies or Established Companies Planning or Investigating OCT product Launches:
Avinger, Welch Allyn/Blue Highway, CorNova, D4D Technologies, Diagnostic Photonics, Finisar, FujiFilm Medical Systems, JDSU, InfraRedx, Lantis Laser, Newton Photonics, NinePoint Medical, Minolta, OCT Innovation, OCT Medical Imaging Inc, Olympus, Oncoscope, OptiScan, Optos, Panasonic, Pentax, Samsung, Siemens, Volcano Corporation, Terumo Cardiovascular Systems, … and many more…
OCT Subsystem and Component Companies:
Axsun, AlazarTech, Alpao, Andor, Avo Photonics, Basler, BaySpec, Cambridge Technology, Dalsa, DenseLight Semiconductor, Electro-Optical Products Corporation, Exalos, FemtoLasers, Fianium, FLIR, General Photonics, General Scanning, Giga Concept, Global Test, Gooch & Housego, Goodrich Corporation, Hamamatsu, Imaging Eyes, Innolume, InPhenix, Kamelian, Lamda Quest, Lightwaves2020, Micron Optics, Multiwave Photonics, NKT Photonics, NP Photonics, NTT Electronics, Oclaro, Optical Research Associates, Pembroke Instruments, Pravium Research, Princton Lightwave, QPhotonics, SuperLum, Toptica Photonics, Wasatch Photonics, Wavelength Electronics, WiOptics, WT&T,…and many more…