As the Chief Technology Officer of Flextronics, I started a camera module business which became the world’s largest supplier of embedded cameras with an estimated market share of more than 10%. When we started that business, we believed that advancements in CMOS image sensors along with people’s desire for visual communication would lead to new high growth opportunities in the tech industry.
A few years later, after co-founding Riverwood Capital, that same conviction led us to invest in Aptina, a CMOS image sensor (semiconductor) company that was spun out from Micron (our first investment); Ambarella (our first exit); and GoPro (the best investment in Riverwood’s first fund).
As we expected, embedded cameras, using CMOS image sensors, have become ubiquitous and are being used not only for image capture but also for optical / visual sensing.
Molecular Sensing … the Next “Big Thing” in Sensing Technologies
In 2013, while serving as Chairman and CEO of Aptina and experiencing, firsthand, the explosive growth in CMOS Image Sensors, I started thinking of what could be the next “big thing” in sensing technologies. I became convinced that it would likely involve molecular sensing so I started looking for investment opportunities in that space.
About a year later, a friend introduced me to Prakash Murthy and Tomo Sato, the cofounders of Atonarp. I was intrigued by Atonarp’s vision of leveraging molecular camera technologies to create real-time, quantitative, molecular sensing platforms, but I was initially very skeptical.
At that time, the company consisted of about four or five very smart technologists and engineers, but it could hardly be called a business: it felt more like a laboratory. Surprisingly, although the company did not yet have a product, they already had several paying customers. In fact, they had more customers than employees and those customers, some of whom were very large companies, were paying to evaluate Atonarp’s ideas and concepts in various applications through proof-of-concept studies.
For a period of about five-six months, after first meeting the founders, I spent many hours with the Atonarp team both in the US and in Japan. For some of those meetings I invited a couple of the smartest people I know to join me and give feedback on Atonarp’s vision and technical approach. We were all impressed with the technical depth of the team and the level of innovation and progress demonstrated—especially with regards to miniaturization.
This led us at Celesta Capital to conclude that Atonarp had both a credible approach and the core competence necessary to develop and deliver a molecular imaging platform that could help drive the transition to molecular diagnostics.
The World’s Smallest, Quantitative Mass Spectrometer
We decided to initially pursue slightly less challenging applications in pharmaceutical and semiconductor manufacturing. This product strategy allowed us to prove out some of our inventions in real applications, mitigate major technology integration risks, and protect downside valuation but the ultimate goal was always molecular diagnostics as a key enabler of Digital Biology / Medical / Healthcare applications.
Atonarp’s first platform, The Atonarp Mass Spectrometer (AMS), is being used by several major pharmaceutical companies to monitor and improve yields in their manufacturing processes and in 2020 a derivative of that platform was launched for use in advanced semiconductor and display manufacturing processes.
It took four years, which is longer than we initially expected, and required almost 100 patented inventions for Atonarp to develop and commercialize what we believe to be the world’s smallest, quantitative mass spectrometer.
Because of the limitations of components available from the current supply chain, in order to achieve the required levels of miniaturization, cost, and performance, the company had to become vertically integrated and develop fundamental components such as Femto-Second Lasers, Optics, Cameras, motion stages and control electronics.
Although what the Atonarp team has achieved so far is a major leap, it is just our first step towards democratizing molecular diagnostics.
Medical Diagnostics Platform
In healthcare applications, tests for blood sugar levels, cholesterol levels and liver function all involve molecular analysis of blood. Most of these tests involve chemical reactions often requiring several vials of blood, expensive lab equipment and costly consumables. Molecular sensing has the potential to transform current test methodologies from chemistry-based testing to physics-based, minimally invasive and/or non-invasive testing.
Atonarp’s CEO, Prakash Murthy, and his team are now primarily focused on the development and commercialization of the medical diagnostics platform. The development of this optical spectroscopy platform has been accelerated by leveraging the learnings from the AMS along with development partnerships involving a couple of large medical device companies.
Atonarp’s AOS platform which combines T-CARS (Time- Resolved Spectroscopy) with unique data analytical techniques will enable non-invasive and real time testing of major diagnostics test panels using blood, urine, or other body fluids at the Point of Care Testing (POCT). This Medical Diagnostics Platform is a highly miniaturized system that features powerful 3D imaging and quantitative spectroscopy.
The results of both minimally invasive and non-invasive lab tests (performed internally and by customers) are impressive and animal testing of the non-invasive prototype is in progress.
Access and Insight to Human Biology
The human body is estimated to be made up of 40 trillion cells, and each cell can hold up to 40 million proteins with each protein having up to 10 trillion atoms. This, along with billions of molecular interactions in the body make the biology of the human body very complex. However, many of the data, signals and responses provided by the human body can be considered or interpreted as structured, modular and digital.
Recent advances and the emergence of new techniques such as CRISPR have demonstrated our ability to understand, engineer solutions, and improve biology including:
1. The creation of new biomolecules – by mapping, measuring, and engineering of atoms,
2. The development of biosystems – by engineering of cells, tissues, and organs and
3. The development and implementation of biocomputing technologies – the use of cells or molecules such as DNA for storage and computation.
These new digital biology technologies have made tremendous progress from mere research to commercial use.
Atonarp is developing new, transformative capabilities that can identify molecules in blood and record billions of molecular transactions inside the human body—in real-time. The technologies developed by Atonarp include a confluence of ultra-fast spectroscopy, combined with imaging, computing, and artificial intelligence that will allow non-invasive diagnostic testing and enable precision medicine.
Molecular Diagnostics at our Fingertips
Non-invasive testing is the holy grail of diagnostics. Atonarp’s platform has already demonstrated the ability to analyze blood (while flowing through capillaries) and identify and quantify various molecules . This should eliminate the need for drawing vials of blood without even needing a pinprick graphic technique at 250 and 500u in depth. Once the capillaries are identified the system scans multiple locations and reads out the molecular information from the blood as it flows through the capillaries.
Today, Atonarp has already achieved near clinical accuracy (a few micrograms per deciliter to go) for the detection of multiple molecules (urea, cholesterol, glucose).
Atonarp and its partners are working to expand the detection capabilities to realize a wide range of diagnostic test panels. Atonarp, in partnership with a leading global medical device company, has begun clinical trials for a major test panel and by mid 2021, we expect the first derivative of Atonarp’s AOS platform to be in production.
And, if the Atonarp team is successful, in the near future when you visit your doctor, instead of drawing three-five vials of blood all it will take for most diagnostics will be a beam of light shining on your finger for a few seconds.