Conceived as a Telecom Company, OmniGuide is Now Bringing Laser Scalpels into Endoscopic Surgery

Yoel Fink started off our phone call by apologizing for being late. He’d been tied up, he said, talking to potential investors as he worked on a Series E round of funding for OmniGuide, a medical device company in Cambridge that grew out of his materials science lab at MIT. The company’s raised close to $50 million from the likes of Stata Venture Partners, Alliance Technology Ventures, and Westbury Partners since it was founded as a telecom-related firm in 2000. Fink hopes to garner $25 to $30 million in this round to expand into new medical markets.

OmniGuide makes a hollow optical fiber that has some unique properties when it comes to carrying various wavelengths of light. The fiber is based on a technology called photonic bandgap crystals that was developed by John Joannopoulos, a physics professor at MIT who cofounded the company with Fink, MIT materials science and engineering head Edwin Thomas, and Sloan School graduate student Uri Kolodny. These crystals have tiny structures etched into them that are roughly the same size as the wavelength of the light they’re dealing with; they act as mirrors, bouncing the light along down the hollow core of the fiber. Standard fibers, made of layers of glass, will absorb the light after a certain distance, but the hollow fibers can carry it much further.

So back in 2000, when the telecom industry was still booming, the founders thought their fiber might make a good next-generation cable for Internet data. But then the boom went bust, and OmniGuide Communications (they’ve since dropped the latter word from their name) hadn’t even developed a product yet.

Fast forward to the present. The company had $6 million in sales in 2007, Fink says, up from zero in 2006, and much of it in the latter part of the year. Doctors are doing surgeries at a rate of about 80 to 100 a week using the fibers. And OmniGuide has opened sales offices in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Switzerland.

What it took to make that transformation, says Fink, who’s CEO while he’s on leave from MIT, was developing the technology into something that could actually be manufactured, and deciding to focus on a specific area where the fibers could solve a problem that had no other solution.

Carbon dioxide lasers have long been used in surgery as laser scalpels. The wavelength of light they produce doesn’t penetrate far into tissue, so their beams can cut precisely without damaging surrounding tissue. But standard optical fibers are totally opaque at those wavelengths, so doctors could only use the laser beam on targets they could see directly.

Along came OmniGuide, with a hollow fiber that could be tailored to different wavelengths, and suddenly it became possible … Next Page »

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