Fundr’s Founder Spotlight gives us a chance to meet the founders of world-changing startups! In today’s Fundr Founder Spotlight, we meet Alexander Oraevsky, CEO and CTO of TomoWave, a leading innovator transforming the medical imaging industry.
Q: It’s great to meet you - thank you for being part of our Founder Spotlight series! We love the work that TomoWave is doing to help doctors and clinicians diagnose and treat disease - tell us a little more about what TomoWave has created.
A: About 12 years ago, I started TomoWave to enable doctors to see through the human body naturally, like they would see with their own eyes using light, not through ionizing radiation (like X-ray and CT) or radio-waves (like MRI). X-rays can see bones very well, but the contrast in soft tissues is low. With MRI, doctors can see better, but to detect abnormal tissue, the MRI requires toxic contrast agents.
Because light is absorbed by molecules, and molecules emit sounds, we can produce molecular images in addition to the conventional anatomical images that are generated by ultrasound. TomoWave provides comprehensive information to the doctors: With sound generated by light, we detect the distribution of molecules as if we are seeing them with our own eyes inside of the body and with premium high-end level ultrasound imaging we detect fine details of abnormal mechanical tissue structures.
With the TomoWave technology the doctor will have 3D information to diagnose disease, to guide surgery, and monitor and improve therapeutic interventions - there’s a large number of clinical applications.
Q: Can you give us an example of the applications?
A: Let’s take breast cancer as an example. Every year globally about 19% of breast cancer diagnoses are missed, and that doubles in younger women who have denser breast tissue. At the same time, about 5 million people are told that a benign, non-cancer mass is potentially cancer, and go through the biopsy procedure to find out whether or not they have cancer.
With TomoWave’s 3D optoacoustic technology combined with ultrasound, we can miss fewer cancers and see the tissue without invasive surgery. With just an image, we can see whether or not a mass is cancerous, minimizing the costs and stress associated with extra procedures. With optoacoustic technology, accurate detection of cancer can increase, leading to quicker diagnosis and saved lives.
On the left, the 3D optoacoustic image clearly shows veins and arteries in a normal breast. On the right, a 3D optoacoustic image shows cancerous tissue (in blue). The area has abnormally low blood oxygen saturation.
Q: This is such an important innovation for all of us. How did you get started in the field of medical imaging and what made you want to start this company?
A: I started my education in physics, mathematics, and then gradually, I was attracted to the field of biology and medicine. When I came to the field of biology and medicine, I realized that in many cases of notorious diseases, the human body still remains like a black box. My goal as a scientist was to help doctors to understand how we function.
I wasn’t born in the U.S., but I came here from Russia as soon as I could 33 years ago. And first I was a visiting researcher and then a faculty member at Rice University, collaborating with the MD Anderson Cancer Center, and then a professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch.
Medicine is really something that I want to contribute my life to. At the end, I would like to say to myself, “I did something good to help people.” Each person needs to answer this philosophical question, “Why do we live? What is the purpose?” We need to live with some purpose, not just to consume food and oxygen! So my purpose in life is to improve the health of people.
Q: Why should investors invest in TomoWave? How are you going to change the world?
A: With the technology of optoacoustic tomography growing globally, my dream is to have this invention available to every hospital, everywhere in the world. It is really the modern technology that will help doctors, not only to see in the body, but also for the first time to measure biological properties with high spatial resolution. The image is becoming quantitative with brightness proportional to a number of specific molecules. Doctors will now be able to select a point of interest in the images provided by TomoWave systems, and say, “In this area, the tumor is growing aggressively and has these specific protein receptors.” And this information is very important for the doctor in order to determine the best course of therapy.
Q: What do you like most about being a founder?
A: As an entrepreneur there are two motivations for me. One is that when you work for others, you are dependent on others, and I think it is more difficult to realize your own ideas. So, one motivation is to be independent. And second, my technology is my baby, so I want to make the decisions about the pathway of my baby’s graduation to the world. At TomoWave, I am enthusiastic to work 24/7 and make decisions for my own business.
Q: What advice do you have for other founders?
A: Never give up. If you live the life of an entrepreneur, especially at a startup, that life is extremely stressful, and full of frustrations - it is very easy to give up. It is a very hard job to become an entrepreneur. It is a very big sacrifice. On the other hand, if you're an entrepreneur, if you're the founder of a high-tech business, you can create new technology, new products, and become a leader in the global community, which is rewarding. I believe that if people have a dream and do their best to achieve it, they will succeed. But if they come to the business for an easy job and quick money, that will not work. So, my advice is to have your dream and keep going, no matter what the problem is. Every problem can be solved if you really want to solve it.
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