NSF I-Corps Team Makes Innovative Ocular Biopsy Kit to Improve Vision Outcomes

3/24/2021 Urvashi Jha

Written by Urvashi Jha

National Science Foundation (NSF) I-Corps team, Visionaire Products, has created an innovative and novel surgical tool to obtain ocular fluid (eye fluid) safely, improve ocular infection diagnosis, and help provide better vision outcomes. The startup recently received $256,000 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase 1 award from the NSF. Visionaire Products plans to use this funding for developing an early prototype and testing. 

Leanne Labriola, founder of Visionaire Products and Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois College of Medicine says, “The ocular diagnostic testing industry is a rapidly growing market that is led by disruptive technology and fast-paced innovations. It is expected to reach $3.86 billion in the next five years. My focus has been on improving methods and tools for ocular diagnosis so that physicians can provide better care for patients and prevent vision loss. As a uveitis specialist, I see cases of ocular inflammation in my clinic. So I came up with the goal of making a new instrument for ocular fluid biopsies. This tool will significantly improve the current way that we treat patients with severe ocular inflammation.” 

According to Visionaire Products, studies have shown that over 40% of cases of ocular inflammation are from viral infections, but many of these go undetected. Without proper detection, these infections can cause prolonged ocular inflammation, poor response to treatment, and chronic eye damage. 

The current method for collecting fluid uses a 30-gauge needle connected to a 1-ml syringe. The needle is inserted at the side of the cornea to access the aqueous humor, an important reservoir that can be biopsied to confirm cases of infection or tumor in the eye. This procedure is often performed under high magnification in order to observe the path of entry of the needle to prevent complications. Complications occur if the needle touches any other part of the eye during the procedure, including the iris, cornea or lens. These complications include iris bleeding, corneal scarring and vision loss, or immediate cataract formation and severe inflammation from lens capsular disruption that requires emergency surgery for lens extraction.

Visionaire Products aims to change this current standard of care for all eye specialists with its ocular biopsy kit that provides a superior method for fluid collection and testing. Visionaire Product device uses advanced engineering to create a one-handed tool with a customized needle and collection chamber that leads to improved patient safety and increased reliability of testing. The device will improve safety, create a more efficient workflow in the office, and enable additional laboratories to be able to processes the fluid sample, which increases access to care. According to the company, large pharmaceutical companies have expressed interest in early partnership and could help with clinical trial testing. 

“We have received grant funding from the NSF to develop the early prototype for this invention. I have gone through I-Corps several times. The program helps you look at your technology from the customers’ perspective and examine your product from a broader viewpoint. Our team used the I-Corps program to develop the business plan for this technology. We interviewed decision makers at all levels of eye care and fluid testing. The customer discovery process helped us to learn about the current limitations in greater depth and to focus on the goals of the research project in order to be able to adequately address the current needs for this new technology. I-Corps program also focuses on important issues like raising funds and how the outcome of your research work will better society.” 

NSF's I-Corps program is a public-private partnership program that teaches university faculty and student entrepreneurs with a targeted curriculum to identify valuable product opportunities that can emerge from academic research, and provides entrepreneurship training to participants.  

“Initially, this program has helped me to be comfortable talking about technology, presenting it, and making sure the entire team is on the same page. There is a great need for our device and we are looking forward to bringing it to market as quickly as possible,” adds Labriola. 

The Illinois I-Corps Site offers 4 cohorts a year (2 per semester) on a rolling submission application cycle. Each team is supported with an I-Corps grant of up to $2,000 to cover travel and prototyping costs. The program comprises 3 workshops over 6 weeks, where teams work to validate the market size, value propositions, and customer segments of their innovations. Upon completion of the program, teams can apply to the National I-Corps program where they receive $50,000 dollars and participate in a rigorous 7-week program, or apply for an SBIR award. Learn more here

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This story was published March 24, 2021.