By Scott Meacham
It is always amazing to me how often entrepreneurship and life-changing innovations come out of parents’ love and concern for their children’s health.
That’s the back story on PhotoniCare, a young company that provides a ground-breaking imaging technology, called the TOMi™ Scope, which allows physicians, for the first time ever, to non-invasively
see through the ear drum to view and diagnose problems in the middle ear, which is where disease occurs.
About eight years ago, PhotoniCare CEO and co-founder Ryan Shelton, a biomedical engineer by training and an Oklahoman from Perkins by birth, was pursuing post-doctoral research on a technology that used light to see through tissue. At the time, his son, who was not yet a year old, suffered from extremely painful and persistent ear infections.
Although ear infections affect four of five children, ear exam technology had not changed for over a hundred years. Dr. Shelton, and two co-founders, his professor who is a physician-engineer and another engineer from the lab, decided to do something.
“The process for diagnosing was very inefficient,” Dr. Shelton said. “We went through months of awful rounds of antibiotics and finally a referral to surgery over a year later. As parents, we felt helpless. My co-founder also has three kids and has experienced the same issues. We started this company because we lived the problem. It means a lot to us, coming from a place of solving our own problems, which happen to be other people’s problems as well.”
The scientists aimed their research laser-like at finding a commercially viable solution for middle ear diagnosis. Dr. Shelton and his co-founders talked to more than 300 caregivers as they were designing their solution. They spun out the company in 2015.
To appreciate what the TOMi™ Scope can mean to children, their parents, and medical professionals, it helps to understand the technology this advanced system is replacing.
For more than 100 years, the only non-invasive tool doctors have to exam and diagnose problems of the ear is an otoscope, an instrument with a light on the end that the doctor inserts into the ear. An otoscope can only see the ear canal and the surface of the ear drum. It cannot see what is happening behind.
Healthcare providers are forced to use subjective criteria, such as the color and shape of the ear drum as a proxy for diagnosing what is happening in the middle ear. According to clinical literature, up to 50 percent of middle ear infections are misdiagnosed.
The TOMi™ Scope received FDA clearance in December. PhotoniCare will be rolling out devices by the end of the year. This scope and the data interpretation that comes with the associated artificial intelligence (AI) takes the guesswork out of diagnosis and may lead to faster and more accurate treatments for children with ear infections.
“The technology that represents the current gold standard is antiquated and leads to poor patient outcomes,” Dr. Shelton said. “With the TOMi™ Scope, we enable clinicians to visualize fluid in the middle ear directly, even in the presence of significant ear wax. It’s a huge step forward for the field.”
The company is presently rolling out their TOMi Trailblazers early adopter program for physicians and clinics. Dr. Shelton invites queries and feedback from patients, parents, and physicians at [email protected].
Scott Meacham is president and CEO of i2E Inc., a nonprofit corporation that mentors many of the state’s technology-based startup companies. i2E receives state appropriations from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology. Contact Meacham at [email protected].