Shahid Azim met me at the front door of his new 3D ear-canal imaging startup, Lantos Technologies, earlier this week. The walls were barren, and the space was mostly devoid of furniture. But when I peeked through one of the office doorways, I spotted the Cambridge, MA, startup’s academic founder, Doug Hart, who is way cooler to have in your office than fancy furniture. Azim, the firm’s co-founder and CEO, would probably agree—and so will lots of consumers if the firm succeeds in its goal of transforming the way hearing aids, audio headsets, and other devices are customized to fit a person’s ear canal.
Before starting Lantos last year, Hart, a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, co-invented the 3D oral imaging technology behind Brontes Technologies, which St. Paul, MN-based 3M (NYSE:MMM) bought for $95 million in 2006—just four years after the Lexington, MA-based firm’s founding. Now, at Lantos, Hart and his fellow co-founders are trying to commercialize a first-of-its-kind 3D imaging technology for the ear canal, much like Brontes did for inside the mouth. The Lantos team also consists of Federico Frigerio, one of the inventors of the Brontes technology, who is a co-founder and chief scientist of the new company. Still, Brontes is a tough act to follow.
Azim, who began working on the Lantos business plan while earning his MBA at the MIT, is following a similar path to one that the Brontes co-founders Eric Paley and Micah Rosenbloom took to make that company a winner. He’s laser focused on developing the firm’s technology for the hearing aid market, just like Brontes initially aimed for the dental market. Yet Azim appears to have his own style. Brontes’s founding CEO, Eric Paley, has the hard-charging confidence of an NFL coach. Azim seems to have a quiet confidence, more of a 007 type. (And Azim’s deep British accent seems suitable for voice-overs in commercials for luxury sedans or expensive gin.)
When I asked Azim whether he feels pressure at Lantos to provide an encore to the success of Brontes, the CEO said: “It sort of cuts both ways. In a way, Brontes presents a live demonstration of real-time 3D imaging in a medical space where it solves a very similar problem. In a way, it helped us tell our story that basically we are solving the same problem, but for a different industry.”
Helped by the commercial success of Brontes (3M is now selling its imaging system to dentists), Azim and Hart were able to raise $1.6 million in a Series A round of financing this summer from a syndicate of Boston-area investors that includes Catalyst Health Ventures, Excel Venture Management, and Mass Medical Angels. For the next 10 months to a year, Azim said, Lantos will be working on taking the lab prototype of Lantos’s 3D ear-canal imaging system and developing a field prototype that ear specialists, called audiologists, can use in a small clinical trial. (Paley, who has since launched a seed-stage investment firm called Founder Collective, has been a sounding board for Azim’s ideas for Lantos, Azim said.)
If all goes as planned, Lantos’s imaging technology should provide a substantial leap forward for the multibillion-dollar global market for hearing aids. Indeed, the startup’s team has already met with top hearing aid makers such as Germany-based Siemens about the technology, Azim said.
To fit a person for a hearing aid today, audiologists fill a patient’s ear with a silicon gel that hardens into a mold. Often, the ear mold is shipped to a manufacturer that uses a 3D printer to replicate the shape for the patient’s hearing aid. Yet the problem, as Azim described it, is that such molds only capture one shape of a patient’s ear canal, which actually changes its shape as people move their heads and jaws. Because today’s molds don’t take those movements into account, the resulting hearing aids can lose their seal in the ear canal and cause irritating noise feedback.
Lantos might be able to solve such problems caused by poorly fitted hearing aids. For starters, its system is designed to take multiple 3D images from inside a patient’s ear canal, as he is moving. It might also be able to detect where the soft and boney tissues are in the ear, providing additional information to ensure that a patient’s hearing aid doesn’t lose its seal when he moves his head or jaw.
The system uses a flexible insert that expands inside of a patient’s ear. Inside the balloon-like insert are a liquid dye and a fiber-optic camera. The camera is supposed to capture 3D images of the ear by detecting the way light is absorbed in the dye. It’s the first medical application of the 3D imaging technology, which was originally developed to detect oil film thickness inside engines, Azim said. Hart and his lab worked on perfecting the technology for the ear for the better part of the last decade. In recent years, the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation at MIT awarded the group a $50,000 grant to investigate commercial applications of the system.
Azim was introduced to the technology through a program at MIT called I-Teams that gives business students the chance to develop strategies for commercializing technologies from across the renowned school’s campus. “I spent the spring of 2009 working on this, and I felt it was a product and the opportunity was exciting enough that I committed to it full time,” Azim said. He’s not a first-time entrepreneur. Prior to his studies at MIT’s Sloan School, Azim was the founder and CEO of an IT services firm called The Braintree Group, which he and his partners sold to the global outsourcing company Touchstone Communications in 2008. The terms of the sale weren’t disclosed.
Lantos sees opportunities for its 3D imaging technology beyond the hearing aid market. Azim talked about the potential use of the technology for customizing earphones for people at retail stores. The military might be interested in using the technology to customize earplugs for service members who work in noisy environments like the deck of an aircraft carrier. He also mentioned the potential use of the technology for diagnosing ear conditions, but he declined to provide specifics.
“I think it’s exciting,” Hart said, “because we are beginning to understand that we may be onto something bigger than we realized.”
Hart said that he is also enjoying the more active role he is taking at Lantos. The firm’s office is a short walk from his lab at MIT, where he is still a full-time professor. MIT allows him to spend up to one day per week working with the startup, he said, and he’s developed a greater appreciation than he had at Brontes for the creativity that goes into developing a business strategy. (His photo also landed in the New York Times business section in a June article about MIT’s success in moving inventions such as Lantos’s toward the market.)
“The thing that I’ve been so shocked with is the level of interest from the outside public,” Hart said. “With Brontes, we were having trouble getting people to understand what we were trying to do. The custom-fit head set or improving hearing so you can hear your grandkids excites people.”
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