A traditional mammogram requires bulky, expensive equipment and trained technicians and radiologists to administer and interpret x-ray results. Imagine instead a low-cost, portable, hand-held scanner that can detect breast cancer in its earliest stages, anywhere. The realization of such a technology is the fruit of more than a decade of research by Drs. Wan and Wei-Heng Shih, Drexel University engineering professors. They developed new sensor technology that works like super-sensitive fingers to detect hardened or dense tissue that may be cancerous. Because of their technology’s high potential to change the way we screen for breast cancer, in 2009 the Shihs were awarded one of the three inaugural QED awards to further develop their technology.
The business support and connections to the broader business network we received from QED were instrumental to commercializing our invention.
Participating in QED was an eye-opening introduction to the business world for the Shihs. As Dr. Wan Shih puts it, “the business support and connections to the broader business network we received from QED were instrumental to commercializing our invention.” They also credit QED and the business advice they received with helping them to move beyond a sole focus on the technical aspects of their project to harnessing the commercialization potential of their technology. At the end of the one-year award period, the Shihs had developed a clinical prototype and successfully conducted clinical trials on 40 patients.
Their technology’s journey to market demonstrates the strength and variety of support and resources within Pennsylvania's innovation ecosystem. Initial bench development was first developed with support from a Coulter-Drexel Translational Research Award. The initial clinical testing supported by QED attracted the attention of Drexel alumnus and entrepreneur Mihir Shah. Inspired by his own family’s experiences with cancer, Shah had founded UE LifeSciences, a startup focused on improving diagnostics for breast cancer worldwide. He licensed the Shihs' sensor technology in 2010.
Two years later, Shah won an $878,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s Commonwealth Universal Research Enhancement (CURE) program. This award funded further research and product development for a commercially viable prototype over two and a half years. Shah then returned to the Science Center as a participant in its Digital Health Accelerator (DHA). DHA provided targeted mentoring and advice, and Shah used the funding from DHA to apply for FDA regulatory approval, which was granted in April 2015.
Today, UE LifeSciences is commercializing the technology under the name iBreastExam (iBE) in India, where there is a dramatic need for earlier breast cancer detection. The breast cancer death rate incidence in the country is among the highest in the world, with a mere 50% chance of survival upon diagnosis. Because iBE is both extraordinarily portable and requires less training to operate than traditional diagnostic devices, its potential for market penetration is promising.
UE LifeSciences has screened over 250,000 women in 25 countries, at $1 per scan, and shipped over a hundred units around the world in October 2018. The company has distribution deals in southeast Asia and Africa through GE Healthcare, have expanded pilots in Brazil and Chile supported by the Bayer Foundation, and have another pilot in Myanmar supported by the Pfizer Foundation. UE LifeSciences also has its sights set on additional markets. The firm, which today employs over 50 people in three offices, has generated over $4.2M in revenue.
While iBE’s reach has become global, Shah is committed to keeping UE LifeSciences' headquarters in Philadelphia. As he says, "we have received invaluable support from the Science Center, Drexel University, and the Commonwealth, and Philadelphia is a robust center for healthcare innovation." Shah plans to keep the firm’s research and development activity in Philadelphia due to both the region’s strong talent pool and the high degree of connectivity that facilitates familiarity with the key players in life sciences innovation and investment.
Drs. Wan and Wei-Heng Shih have also continued on their own commercialization journey. After being introduced to the Science Center through QED, the Shihs have returned to what they describe as the “nurturing environment” that the Science Center provides. They founded a startup around a separate technology and are working to build the company out of the Science Center’s Port business incubator. They continue to view QED as an important commercialization funding source for future inventions.