By GREGORY ZELLER // Stony Brook startup SynchroPET has taken a giant step toward commercializing its groundbreaking scanners, which offer unprecedented 3-D views of the body’s biological systems using technology that no longer fills a room. In fact, it barely covers a desk.
More on the science in a minute. The headline is news that SynchroPet has sited its first scanner at Stony Brook Medicine’s animal research division, where researchers will run it through its paces, providing “an independent analysis of performance standards,” CEO Marc Alessi told Innovate LI.
Alessi, who founded SynchroPET after licensing technologies developed at Brookhaven National Laboratory, said the test will run indefinitely and is the first of a number of installations at beta sites, where perfecting the technology will be the first order of business.
“When a beta customer purchases a device, it’s still a purchase and the customer expects it to function,” Alessi said. “But our initial customers will also be able to give us feedback on how to make it better, and we’ll make those advancements over the next several months.
“There’s already interest in our devices worldwide,” he added – including scientists who’d like to use the machines for everything from Alzheimer’s research to studying cancer. “But we want to put (the scanners) through the beta process before we deliver.”
The company’s big commercialization push is planned for the first half of 2016, still a blistering pace for a company that didn’t exist a short three years ago.
OK, time for the science. PET scanners – it’s short for positron-emission tomography – produce detailed images of the body’s functional processes. Tracking gamma rays emitted by tiny tracers that are injected into the body, PET systems use computers to construct 3D images that offer biomedical researchers and healthcare professionals unrivaled views of the body’s systems.
How’s that different from an MRI? As Alessi explains it, MRIs and CAT scans are great for anatomical information, indicating, for example, exactly where a tumor is.
“But a PET scan can tell you if there’s cancer in your body long before a tumor is present. So the PET makes the MRI more useful, and the MRI makes the PET more useful.”
SynchroPET combines four distinct BNL technologies, including a miniature scanner that can image the entire brain of fully conscious lab rats, plus a small-animal PET insert for magnetic-resonance imaging machines. There’s also a PET scanner that’s a fraction of the size of the typical room-sized PET machine and a dual-imaging MRI-PET scanner that promises to reduce false-positive findings in breast screenings.
But it’s really all one platform technology, Alessi said.
“What we’ve basically done is eliminate a lot of the wires and components associated with processing PET data.”
The resulting platform is not only smaller than any other PET scanner, it also promises unique advantages at various stages of medical research. The miniature rat-brain scanner and small PET insert, for example, both focus on pre-clinical applications that are ideal for drug research. The drastically scaled down PET scanner – it can strap onto the average wrist – and the MRI-PET dual-imaging scanner are both ideal for use on human patients.
And the microchip-based technology is “very scalable,” according to Alessi, thanks to the elimination of all those wires and components.
“We’re able to build scanners that are very configurable,” Alessi said. “We’re a lot more versatile than any other PET scanner on the market.”
But it’s SynchroPET’s focus on simultaneous imaging – basically, combining the best of PET and MRI scans – that makes the technology so cutting-edge. Simultaneous imaging “is where the PET market is trying to go,” Alessi noted, including a “really large” human PET-MRI device introduced recently by German engineering giant Siemens.
“Simultaneous applications have a lot of advantages,” he explained. “The medical industry has always had an eye toward pairing PET with MRI. Other imaging companies want to compete with Siemens and build similar devices – and now here’s this small, nimble startup that has a technology that can do it for a fraction of the cost of what Siemens is doing.”
While he has a good handle on the science behind his company, Alessi is not a scientist. A corporate attorney by trade, he’s a former New York State legislator and serial entrepreneur who’s started companies across numerous sectors, including recent launches RealVirtualZone.com – it creates 3D representations of virtually any environment, a useful tool for realtors, construction professionals and others – and GrieveYourTaxes.com, which needs no further explanation. Alessi also is of council at Ronkonkoma law firm Campolo Middleton & McCormick.
He’s also the former executive director of the Long Island Angel Network, a former LIPA board member and the onetime head of the Brookhaven Democratic Committee, a position he gave up when he launched SynchroPET.
“Politics is too much of a distraction when you’re trying to grow a company,” Alessi noted.
He still sits on the board of the Peconic Bay Medical Center, a role Alessi credits with inspiring him to license those BNL technologies and launch SynchroPET. But despite his work at the hospital – and the fact that he’s consulted with a number of startups in the information technology, energy and biotechnology fields – Alessi readily admits science is not his bag, which is why he stacked the SynchroPET team with several big brains.
That starts with Chief Technology Officer David Smith, a nuclear physicist who helped develop the BNL technologies behind SynchroPET. Smith is a “great fit for what we’re doing,” according to Alessi, and just one of the science-oriented folks helping to guide the startup toward prosperity.
The CEO also singled out advisors Harvey Brofman – he’s been “essential” since investing in the company and joining the board of advisors in 2014 – and Kevin Hesselbirg, an Ernst & Young veteran and former CEO of software giant OpenLink Financial, among other executive positions.
“Kevin has a stellar record as a CEO and a CFO,” Alessi said. “He’s providing some very important advice.”
SynchroPET’s array of talent and technology has helped the company raise over $900,000 so far. One of the first firms funded by regional business booster Accelerate LI, the startup plans to end its seed round at exactly $1 million “probably in a month or two,” Alessi noted.
Next year, it’s planning to raise between $3 million and $5 million, an A round Alessi does not expect to have to follow with a B.
“That will probably be the last time we ever have to raise money,” Alessi said. “This company will become highly profitable very quickly.”
The Stony Brook Medical beta test should help speed SynchroPET in that direction – and despite a few bumps in the developmental road, speed is one of the things his startup has done best, Alessi noted.
“When you’re trying to replicate what was done in a lab environment, there’s going to be some trial and error,” he said. “But you anticipate that and plan for the unknown.
“We’re moving on the path we set out at the beginning of 2014,” Alessi added. “We thought we’d get our betas out to our initial customers three or four months faster, but in the grand scheme, it’s fantastic that we’re as close to our target as we are.”