Hearts and Minds: Saving Lives with IonOptix
September 10, 2018
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In the early 1990s, Dr. Douglas Tillotson was researching in the neurology department at Boston University.
“While there, he developed one of the very first systems for measuring calcium using a video camera at high speed. He developed a very cool way of synchronizing the camera to the light source for doing fluorescence measurement,” Tom Udale recalls.
Tom is the current CEO of the company that would stem from Douglas’ groundbreaking technology, IonOptix.
“The measurement technique we use requires two pictures of a sample, and to divide them by each other. The light has to switch between two wavelengths very rapidly to get an accurate measurement.”
He developed a very cool way of synchronizing the camera to the light source for doing fluorescence measurement
That is unbelievably complicated. But Douglas figured it out, and began using it in his nerve research. It didn’t take long for word to get out.
“He started building these systems for his friends, because they wanted them for their own research. He was doing that on the side, and that’s when he decided to start the company.”
That’s where it all started for IonOptix. But, it didn’t stay there.
Soon after getting the ball rolling, IonOptix entered a new market.
From Head to Heart
Tom’s story at IonOptix began in 1992, when he was hired on right out of college to take a programming job there.
“After I graduated from Boston University, I got this call out of nowhere from a guy I’d seen in my lab asking if I wanted to program for the guy he worked for. Of course I said yes. Total blind luck, really.”
Tom ended up becoming IonOptix’s first full-time employee. That same year, the company shifted their interests from brains to veins. And heart cells.
One of the researchers studying heart cells wanted to combine our fluorescence measurement with cell length measurement.
“We kind of backed into it. Douglas’ wife is a cardiologist, and she was doing some training in a research lab at Boston University. One of the researchers studying heart cells wanted to combine our fluorescence measurement with cell length measurement. So, we did that.”
They developed their first cardiac system. Calling it a huge success is a bit of an understatement. From there, IonOptix absolutely took off.
“Now, we’re at least 80% invested in the heart research community. We added in the vascular component after that, which is it’s own beast. 70-80% of our customers are in academia, specifically doing cardiological research, with some in pharma.”
IonOptix had found its niche, and orders were coming in fast. By this time, Tom had moved up to Research and Development Manager, and the company was growing.
They had to leave the barn behind.
Reach and Development
IonOptix had to leave their idyllic headquarters just outside of Boston and move to a more traditional office setting.
“The barn was way cooler to work in, that’s for sure. But where we’re at now provides the space and amenities we need for daily operations.”
They opened an office on the West coast, and even opened an office in Dublin. Once they cracked into the European market, IonOptix grew once again.
“As of now, we sell equal amounts of products in the US and the EU. Together, that accounts for 80% of our sales. The other 20% is global, which includes China, Japan, Turkey, Qatar, South America, and a few others.”
One of the benefits of IonOptix’s EU presence is their CSO, Michiel Helmes, who enjoys a partial appointment at a university in the Netherlands.
IonOptix can guarantee the quality of their products because of the amount of research and testing that goes into their development
“Which is really nice. That allows us the ability to work with live tissue which is kind of hard to do outside of a university setting. We do a lot of that in house because, as it turns out, customers don’t like testing the products themselves.”
IonOptix can guarantee the quality of their products because of the amount of research and testing that goes into their development. They have over 10 products for sale, and are developing more all the time.
“Most of what we do is developing addons and improvements to existing products. But, we are investigating new areas and products all the time. For example, we’ve recently developed the ‘CytoCypher microscope,’ which is a huge product development for us. It’s basically a fully-automated and motorized microscope that can move from cell to cell very rapidly, conducting our standard measurements automatically.”
It takes a ton of trial and error, and a ton of funding.
Some of these products can take 5 years to develop, and even longer to perfect. To keep the wheels turning and products moving, IonOptix needed to move their money much faster than that.
“We have to keep moving fast. Other companies are developing these products too, so we have to stay on our toes. Our product is what sets us apart, and if we can’t get it out fast enough, we’ll get rolled over.”
They need efficiency.
Need for Speed
The strides that IonOptix is making in research and development may change the face of science.
Increasing the speed of experiments, and even moving into other research fields outside of cardiology spell a bright future for Tom and Douglas.
Tom worked his way up to CEO in 2015, and since then he’s looked for ways to continue streamlining Ion’s operations, research, and products.
“At the root of everything, I’m an engineer. I kind of view everything as an engineering problem, as a design problem. On the technical R&D side and even within the business, it’s all about trying to be more efficient. Of course, that doesn’t work with everything. HR doesn’t have fixes like that. But, it’s interesting to me personally, and allows us to work better and provide a better product.”
Eventually, that led Tom to look for a better way to send international payments. IonOptix pays vendors in Europe, and have had a ton of trouble.
“We used to kind of route everything through our Dublin office, which was a little weird, but it is so much easier for them to make electronic payments. We’d end up double-booking everything. I’d place an order with them and they’d place an order with who I actually wanted it to be placed with. It wound up being a real pain, because I’d have to make up two invoices, two purchase orders, two of everything.”
Even when Tom could pay directly, he still had issues. This time, with his bank.
Before Veem, I was spending at least $40 to send a wire, no matter how much it was for. Plus, there were charges from the intermediary banks, and I was just never sure how much of the money I sent would actually arrive
“It was always a nightmare. I had to go to the bank and deal with the wire office every time, which couldn’t be done from my office. I had to fill out forms, and it ended up being like a 45 minute job to send a check to anybody.”
That’s how Tom started looking for Veem.
“It was all just getting to be too much. When I found Veem, I was just floored. Before them, I was taking at least an hour to send a wire. Now, it takes me five minutes. I save a ton of time, which means I can get other stuff done for the business. For me, that’s the main benefit. Now, I can get stuff done that actually makes me money, and sitting in a waiting room is not one of those things.”
Plus, Tom saves all the money he lost sending bank wires.
“Before Veem, I was spending at least $40 to send a wire, no matter how much it was for. Plus, there were charges from the intermediary banks, and I was just never sure how much of the money I sent would actually arrive. So then, I’m spending even more time by sending another wire to make up for the money lost. With Veem, I don’t have to deal with any of that.”
For Tom, Veem saves him the time he needs to continue optimizing his business.
Scientific technology takes a long time to develop. With all the research and experimentation, it could take years before a product is ready for sale.
Time is everything in Tom’s business, and for the scientists that rely on IonOptix’s technology, every minute matters.