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 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.

So for the foreseeable future, Fink says, OmniGuide will be selling its fibers for medical uses. “It’s turning into a real, very compelling market,” he says.

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