Conceived as a Telecom Company, OmniGuide is Now Bringing Laser Scalpels into Endoscopic Surgery
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to use the lasers for endoscopic surgery. Thread a tube carrying a camera and an OmniGuide fiber down a patient’s throat, for example, and you can start zapping away esophageal tumors. “We think this is the ultimate cutting tool for minimally invasive surgery,” says Fink.
In addition to surgeries on the larynx, trachea, and esophagus, the fiber is being used for stapedectomy, in which surgeons cut away a tiny bone in the ear and replace it with an artificial part as a treatment for one kind of deafness. OmniGuide is putting together studies to demonstrate the fiber’s usefulness in neurosurgery and spinal, gastrointestinal, and gynecological procedures.
Fink says not only can the fibers deliver laser beams to places they couldn’t reach before, they can also bring down the cost of medical lasers. A carbon dioxide laser for medical use can cost upwards of $100,000. Fink says that’s because industry, trying to make their laser products profitable, designed complex systems and pushed users toward higher laser powers. But what’s really important is not how much total power the system puts out, but how much is concentrated in a tiny spot. “You could take a relatively low power source, and if you can get it down to a smaller spot size, it’s going to cut,” he explains. With OmniGuide fibers, doctors can buy lower power, lower cost lasers. And unlike other surgical laser companies, which can only sell a laser once, OmniGuide makes its money not on the laser system, but on resupplying doctors with disposable fibers. “As long as you buy fibers, we’re happy,” says Fink.
So is this former telecom company now a medical device company? “We are, resoundingly, yes,” declares Fink. He says when the founders originally gathered in 2000 in the office of Ray Stata—founder of Analog Devices and Stata Venture Partners and now chairman of OmniGuide’s board of directors—to talk about the company, the technology was little more than a bunch of circles drawn on a whiteboard. “We didn’t have a technology yet. We didn’t know how to make it. We just had a concept.”
It wasn’t until 2002, when Fink’s lab finally managed to make the photonic crystals into fibers, that they started thinking about what the best applications might be, and it wasn’t until the following year that they were actually able to manufacture the fibers. Though the medical laser idea was only one of several initial thoughts, “pretty soon it took over,” Fink says.
That doesn’t mean he’s completely given up on selling the fiber in other markets. It might make sense in industrial manufacturing, to deliver laser beams for cutting, welding, and etching, for example. But unlike with endoscopic surgery, there are already laser systems that do those jobs, so an OmniGuide system would have to be a clear improvement. In telecom, the company would have to make fibers that lasted for years instead of being disposable and that ran for kilometers instead of a meter or less—and still be cost competitive with existing fibers.