1902 Fox Drive, Suite F
Champaign, IL 61820
Each week, Paul Wood talks with a high-tech leader. This week, meet WEI KANG, 37, director of research and development at UI Research Park-based PhotoniCare Inc., which makes medical devices, specifically a device for imaging the ear. He earned his doctorate at Case Western Reserve University and previously held an engineering position at St. Jude Medical in Boston.
What brought you here from Boston?
This position, two years ago. I think this is a very challenging position and fits well with my education and experience. I was working on optical technology at St. Jude Medical. I led multiple design projects for a few generations of new products.
What made you decide this is what you want to do with your life?
I always wanted to build medical devices. Medical devices make the most significant impact, and I want to feel like I’ve accomplished something. Doing it at an affordable cost — what brought me to this company is that we attack the problem with cost, convenience and availability in mind. We try to address a lot of issues with this device.
Sounds like PhotoniCare is thriving.
It was the winner of the 2018 SPIE Startup Challenge in San Francisco. The SPIE Startup Challenge is held annually at Photonics West, the world’s most comprehensive technical conference and exhibition spanning biophotonics for research and healthcare, lasers for research and advanced manufacturing, sensors and camera systems, imagining and displays, communications and optoelectronics, plus the core optical components that enable many of today’s consumer products. The event invited new entrepreneurs to pitch their light-based technology business plan to a team of corporate development experts and venture capitalists. The challenge featured 24 semi-finalists in total.
What did the company do to win?
PhotoniCare competed in the Biophotonics and point of care track, consisting of 10 startups from across the world. Ryan Shelton, co-founder and CEO, pitched at the presentation. As winner of the best pitch, PhotoniCare was awarded with a $10,000 cash prize in addition to a week-long entrepreneur boot camp training, promotion opportunities and reimbursement for travel expenses. Another sponsor also granted an award for the device.
What kind of challenges have you faced?
Regulatory submission is always a challenge for startups in our industry. For our first product for the market, interestingly, we still have to decide on a name for it. Previously we called it ClearView [OtoSight Middle Ear Scope], but we’re looking for something that distinguishes it as a tool for helping diagnose ear problems. When I first joined, the goal was to out our original product on the market, a giant cart you move around. It gives you a nice image, but on the other hand it’s quite expensive, which is also common for this type of technology.
How did you resolve this problem?
The team talked to different investors and potential users. We realized that for this device it was probably too expensive as a high end product for pediatricians and general practitioners who most commonly would need a device for imaging ear infections. We asked ourselves what are the critical needs, how can we improve their diagnosis experience without charging a lot. We came up with an idea that reduced the cost by a lot while still providing the essential promised performance. It’s smaller and more convenient to use.
When will that go on the market?
We plan for a market launch late this year or early next year. It really depends on how quick it goes through the regulatory process — third-party test labs and FDA’s approval process. All medical devices have to go through the FDA.
How long does that FDA process usually take?
For our specific category, the last time we checked, it takes about four months.
Have you learned from any mistakes in your career?
A lot of mistakes. Mistakes in how you communicate with different people, conflicts with departments … different departments have their own goals, and you have to understand what they are there for. Otherwise, nothing would get done. I’ve learned lessons from dealing with customers, with marketing. I’ve seen products that have a lot of early investment but don’t end up with a good return, for the company or for the user. They’ve been overpriced and doesn’t make a big improvement.
Are you on social media? No, but I have a favorite app, WeChat, to connect with family and friends in China.
Do you have any wearable electronics? No.
Do you prefer to read material digitally or in paper form? What are you reading now? I’m reading a book called “The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement” by Eliyahu M. Goldratt, Jeff Cox and David Whitford. I use Amazon Kindle.
Do you have an entrepreneur hero? Elon Musk. He just put on a great show with SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket.
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