By Jonathan Underhill
Nov. 19 (BusinessDesk) – Precision Microcircuits, a family-owned New Plymouth firm, has partnered with a global pioneer in ultrasound technology to build a portable brain injury scanner that may become a must-have for field medics around the world.
The company will manufacture transducers for a scanning device being developed by Tessonics Inc, the Canadian high-tech start-up founded by physicist and entrepreneur Roman Maev, who holds 32 patents related to high-frequency acoustic imaging.
One of Maev’s breakthroughs was to find a way to analyse ultrasound through the human skull, whose surface layers tend to scatter the signal or create ‘white noise’.
It was then a matter of shrinking the transducers down to a size where they could go into a portable device for use in places unlikely to have an MRI scanner such as ambulances, army field medics, mining companies, small towns, and factories. The medic on the ground could attempt to analyse the brain injury or patch in a remote specialist for expert advice.
“It has the potential to significantly change the company and the way it does business, not only with this product but what we learn in developing this manufacturing process,” said managing director Rob Carruthers. “It will flow on to other products.”
Carruthers is a largely self-taught electronics enthusiast whose father and company founder Barrie got his start bringing TV signals into isolated rural areas. The transducers for Tessonics have to be shrunk down to the size of a 10 cent coin and used in volume, individually connected and in such a small space that using traditional circuit board technology “would be impossible,” he said.
Precision Microcircuits develops and makes microcircuits using thick film technology, which uses a substrate of ceramic, titanium and stainless steel – more robust medium than conventional acid-etched, printed circuit boards, or PCBs, generally smaller and able to withstand extremes of temperature, humidity and vibration.
Both father and son get stuck with the No. 8 wire tag because they started out working in a garage. Barrie Carruthers first heard about thick film technology at a DSIR conference 30 years ago, his son says, and was the only person in New Zealand to run with it.
“I’m not concerned about it,” Rob Carruthers says. “Being under-estimated is quite useful sometimes.”
The company currently produces about 2.5 million units a year, mostly high-volume, passive components. The transducers would be a lower-volume product with higher technical capacity, Carruthers said.
Initially the firm would be able to absorb the increased production, which it expects will double in the next three-to-four years. But it expects to have to cope with a significant pickup in demand and is currently considering external funding options.
Carruthers met Maev via Callaghan Innovation scientist Paul Harris and the relationship developed when they met in Canada. He said Maev was “a very smart man and very commercially focussed for an academic.”
Maev, who visited New Zealand at the invitation of Callaghan this month, said his own research gained impetus from attending an ultrasound conference in Brighton in 1986, where the 3,000 attendees were challenged by a speaker (a lawyer) to prove the technology was safe.
In the “real panic” that followed, the World Health Organisation put together a team to study the safety of ultrasound. Maev was on the team, which ultimately concluded it was safe to a certain energy limit and for use after the first month of pregnancy.
But industry had wider interests and Maev says he was invited by the Canadian government to develop commercial applications such as checking welds on car assembly lines and for aircraft. The technology was then refined much further as adhesives began to replace welding for cars and in aerospace with the adoption of composite materials.
Now the front line is advanced materials studied by nano-technologists and the field of super-conductivity. One of Maev’s latest projects is for phantoms – the ability to build an exact 3D replica of, say, a human head, based on an MRI scan, which could be dissected to show exactly how a tumour was sitting in the brain.
“We have 26 projects on the go,” Maev said. “You cannot fail too much.”
(BusinessDesk receives funding from Callaghan Innovation to assist coverage of the commercialisation of innovation.)