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Luminate NY Innovation Finals Showcase Range and Depth of Photonic Innovation

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ROCHESTER, N.Y., Sept. 11, 2020 — For the first time, Luminate NY is holding its Innovation Finals Competition in a virtual format, at an event on the opening day of The Optical Society’s (OSA) Frontiers in Optics + Laser Science Conference (FiO + LS) Sept. 14-17. Finalists from 10 startups around the world will pitch their OPI-enabled applications and innovations to a digital audience whose members will be able to vote for their favorite technology. The competition marks the end of an accelerator program in which the finalists have participated, culminating with an award of up to $2 million going to the winner.

“This year’s cohort was forced to change their growth strategies rapidly,” said Sujatha Ramanujan, Luminate NY’s managing director. “It was impressive how quickly the teams adapted. Where this cohort differed from previous years was how they were forced to reimagine their business and execution as opposed to asking Luminate to further an existing business idea.”

For startups in the medical space, either in testing or parts manufacturing, access to hospitals and care facilities was restricted. For those in deep tech and clean energy, identifying and securing partners and connections without direct access to a base of customers was another, unavoidable obstacle.

“The impact on these emerging businesses was sharp and immediate,” Ramanujan said. “Several companies, particularly those in the medical space, shifted their capabilities and immediate offerings to serve needs created by COVID-19. Others shifted their product and sales methodology to utilize channels and approaches that required less in person contact.”

International companies (non-U.S.-based companies, of which there are four in this year’s finalists’ cohort) were forced in some cases to lean more heavily on the ability of the program to engage local resources to further their businesses and cultivate regional engagement and clear U.S. entry, Ramanujan said.

As the OSA/Luminate partnership converges at next week’s FiO + LS Conference, themes of entrepreneurship and connectivity, already at the fore, have an opportunity to flourish for the benefit of the startups, as well as conference participants and registrants. Those connections support the optics and photonics community as a whole.

“Supporting and nurturing these companies is vital for our scientific community and society at large,” said Elizabeth Rogan, CEO of OSA. “Optics, photonics, and imaging are changing the world right now, in both discovery and application. In bringing the Luminate competition to our international FiO + LS audience, we are excited to connect these startups with our members and conference attendees from across the globe. 

“By demonstrating these groundbreaking technologies in a remote, real-time format, the startups will engage with other companies, funders, and entrepreneurs who may be interested in partnering or investing in their business.”

Some companies, such as Simulated Inanimate Models LLC (SIM), which will be pitching its surgical simulation model and technology, already have roots in Rochester. Components of the company’s technology, said company CEO Mike Wilson, were founded at the University of Rochester and by area surgeons looking for improved means for training medical residents.

Other finalists, such as SaNoor, developers of laser-based visible light communication (VLC) devices and systems for high-speed, energy-saving, ecofriendly, and safe wireless data communication, including that which takes place underwater, have international ties.

The SaNoor team met at the photonics lab at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology’s (KAUST) in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia. Company CEO Boon Ooi said an inquiry from the oil and gas industry in 2014 about video streaming in subsea workplaces and underwater monitoring was a seminal moment in the company’s history more than a half-decade before arriving in Rochester.

“The lack of a high-speed wireless internet of underwater things (IoUT) network hindered the effective real-time monitoring of subsea pipelines and other infrastructures,” Ooi said. SaNoor is committing to high-speed, high-capacity products that will improve underwater operation and the control of robots. The result would expedite industrial automation while saving costs and maximizing efficiency.

Fast-forward to the days before the 2020 finals, and Ooi’s focus, though not removed from the IoUT, is also in Rochester. He said prior to Luminate, he directed many of his business’s efforts to prototyping and product development. Today, his work is more focused on understanding his technology’s role in the market and developing business strategy.

The networking and resource-sharing opportunities Luminate provides to all its finalists have been of tremendous value in those areas especially. The FiO + LS Conference is another, magnified stage on which to shine.

“As a special event at the FiO + LS conference, the Luminate Finals Competition enhances the high-quality programming being presented at this virtual meeting,” Rogan said. “Industry participation is always robust and we are pleased that registrants for the Luminate Finals Competition, many of whom are from industry, will also have an opportunity to explore and engage with our speakers and presenters.”

This year’s finals event will showcase new additions to Luminate’s portfolio, Ramunajan said, highlighting startups in agricultural technology, clean energy, quantum encryption, and free space communications.

We caught up with some of this year’s finalists in advance of the competition to learn more about their technologies, experience, and plans and aspirations for the future.


Enhancing the Optical Process with Photonic Smart Coating Technology

Nishikant (Nish) Sonwalkar, president and CEO, SunDensity Inc.

SunDensity is a Boston-based company applying its photonic smart coating (PSC) technology to enhance the photonic process. In Rochester and as part of this year’s Luminate cohort, said company President and CEO Nish Sonwalkar, the company is situated in proximity to the knowledge base and workforce it needs to grow. With Luminate funding, the company will set up its manufacturing operation in Rochester, and is now registered in the state of N.Y.

“We need a trained workforce in photonics and optics, and that is the strength of Rochester,” Sonwalkar said. “The facilities and price point for setting up a manufacturing line in the region are excellent.”

The notion of “smart”  applies both in name and in product to SunDensity’s portfolio. The company is setting its sights on creating parity for solar power with the electricity grid, as a means of accelerating clean energy around the world.

“There is a trend of ‘smart’ things across the commercial world, including smart windows, smart cars, and smartphones,” Sonwalkar said. “The term ‘smart’ means something that reacts to the environment and adjusts itself to accommodate the needs of the environment. 

“Our PSC is able to react to the incoming photons and able to shape the outgoing photons that are best for optoelectronic devices, such as solar cells.” Specifically, SunDensity’s technology shifts the wavelengths of photons in a way that optimizes or matches them with the performance of an optoelectric device. PSCs contain multiple nano-optical layers that, together, selectively downshift the ultraviolet photons into the infrared to generate more electrons by creating a quantum match. 

Nishikant (Nish) Sonwalkar, President and CEO, SunDensity Inc. The company's photonic smart coating (PSC) reacts to the incoming photons and able to shape the outgoing photons that are best for optoelectronic devices, such as, solar cells.
Nishikant (Nish) Sonwalkar, president and CEO, SunDensity Inc. Courtesy of Luminate.
The company maintains a focus on enhancing and improving the performance and environmental impact of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels producing clean energy to significantly reduce carbon emissions. SunDensity additionally plans to deliver its smart coatings solutions to the developers of architectural windows, optoelectronic devices, and digital imaging platforms, as well as advanced photovoltaic applications, including those for space exploration.


Simulating Surgical Training

Michael Wilson, COO, Simulated Inanimate Models LLC (SIM)

Surgical simulation company SIM (namely, its chief operating officer, Michael Wilson) breaks its product into two key parts: a “phantom,” which for SIM is a lifelike model of human anatomy, and educational software, the company’s trademark ESIST platform.

The phantoms are made of hydrogel, incorporate distinct human disease pathology, enable surgical procedure with any part of the human body, and provide surgical trainees with the exact model they need for a complete surgical education experience.

The company’s ESIST software, coupled with SIM’s augmented reality (AR) headset and inference engine computing platform, functions as an instructional guide — as if an expert surgeon is standing next to the trainee giving instruction. Designed to pair with SIM’s phantoms, the software literally guides a surgeon through the surgical process step by step. The AR headset displays text, graphics, and film clips to provide procedural instructions as a surgeon works on the phantom. A camera mounted in the AR headset sees what the surgeon sees. Procedural instructions are combined with the real-world scene through a reflective, see-through optic combiner placed on the stereoscopic near-eye display.

“It is really like a flight simulator for surgery,” Wilson said. “The AR displays instructions, detects human motion, indicates error, takes timing into account, and awards a final grade.”

The product addresses the issue of exposing human patients to unnecessary risk in the surgical training process without eliminating the potential for on-the-job training. The phantoms are surgeon-designed, which heightens their anatomical likeness and educational value to that of a human patient. It also serves to ensure that the software and AR component of the technology is as procedurally accurate and medically informative as possible, Wilson said.

SIM has not designed its own see-through optics or lens/camera technology. Because the company was unable to identify an existing AR headset capable of performing its needs as of today, they custom-assembled what is currently in use from off-the-shelf components.

“We are using stereo IR imagers with an IR projector for depth information, and a 41 by 72 degrees FOV HD RGB imager mounted on the AR headset,” company CTO Steve Griffith said. “We are also using images from other sources as input to the machine learning (ML) inference models, including ultrasound feeds and simulated endoscopic cameras with 720p and full HD RGB (41 by 72 degrees FOV) resolution respectively. 

“Another important point is that we are using multiple ML inference models in real time at 30 frames per second to drive the curricular content. For instance, if the surgeon makes an error, the ML model output will work in conjunction with SIM’s curricular content engine to instruct the training surgeon that there is an error, and provide cues indicating the steps that are required to properly perform the procedure. If the correct steps are performed, then the next step in the procedure will be prompted on the 42-degree diagonal, near eye see-through optic displays.”

SIM, using phantoms and its ESIST software, addresses the issue of exposing human patients to unnecessary risk in the surgical training process without eliminating the potential for on-the-job training. Courtesy of SIM.

SIM, using phantoms and its ESIST software, is addressing the issue of exposing human patients to unnecessary risk in the surgical training process, without eliminating the potential for on-the-job training. Courtesy of SIM.
The ESIST system architecture has been designed to be platform agnostic by using open standards. This leaves the possibility for content to be ported to a wide variety of platforms and operating systems, including x86, ARM, Linux, and Android.

The phantoms, meanwhile, continuously undergo clinical and mechanical validation to meet the needs of medical professionals, Wilson said. Though that currently means surgeons and those receiving surgical training, the company hopes to soon be able to deliver its realistic, hands-on product to help train operating room staff, including technicians and nurses.

A challenge for SIM, and one that Luminate and the Rochester optics and photonics community is helping to alleviate by fostering opportunities for networking and collaboration, involves future software development.

“We recognized it’s going to be a challenge to develop training software and efficiently incorporate medical curricula for the large number of surgical procedures that we’ll need,” Wilson said. “The startup/industry connection in Rochester and resource availability have exceeded our expectations.”


Portable Agricultural Sampling Technology

Keenan Pinto, CEO, Nordetect

Nordetect CEO Keenan Pinto says his company and its technology draw inspiration from the medical industry, where systems have prioritized efficiency and portability. In the agricultural world, the technology Nordetect has developed prioritizes those same themes.

Nordetect is a Denmark-based agricultural diagnostics company with the ability to provide insights into crop health, environmental factors, and nutrient levels by analyzing soil, water, or leaf (tissue) samples on location. The company’s technology is composed of a “lab on a chip” cartridge and a vision system that fit within a small briefcase.

Nordetect technology provides onsite analyses of soil, water, or leaf (tissue) samples. The company’s technology is comprised of a “lab on a chip” cartridge, as well as a vision system, that fits within a small briefcase. Courtesy of Nordetect.

Nordetect technology provides on-site analyses of soil, water, or leaf (tissue) samples. The company’s technology is composed of a “lab on a chip” cartridge and a vision system that fit in a small briefcase. Courtesy of Nordetect.
Users place liquid samples onto a cartridge, where colorimetric detection picks up the presence or absence of target chemicals — and quantifies them. The microfluidic chip generates a signal in real time, as a camera captures detailed, focused images and processes the signals through deep learning. The system delivers a concentration value, providing users such as growers and agronomists with rapid results.

Existing testing systems take weeks in some cases to yield the results Nordetect technology provides on-site in minutes.

If diabetes is the problem with a clear-cut testing mechanism in the medical world, over-fertilization, then, is its equivalent in agriculture.

“The analyzer really is its own ecosystem,” Pinto said. “We see it expanding from optimizing fertilizer, to helping with compliance and traceability of chemicals in the food chain”

Nordetect first introduced a soil test. As growers and agronomists began to look more and more at nutrient balance, the company added capabilities for testing water and tissue samples. Analyses of water and tissue samples are useful in determining nutrient imbalances, as well as overall crop and system health.

The advance in the company’s technology runs parallel to an advance in agriculture.

“This is a technical product, offering new technology to an industry seeking increased precision and optimization,” Pinto said. Vertical farming, hydroponics, and precision agriculture are each areas of innovation. A product using chemo sensors, hardware, and data management systems to deliver an immediate assessment is a seamless fit.

The technology Nordetect uses is applicable to both indoor and outdoor growing environments, and aims to address problems beyond the obvious — crop well-being and agricultural efficiency. With more efficient, more available testing, growers and agronomists will be able to cut down on food waste.


The 2020 Luminate Finals Competition at OSA’s Fio + LS Conference marks the halfway point of the five-year Luminate accelerator program. Since its inception, the program has invested $7 million in 30 startups. As the event moves to a virtual format, the competition and its participants continue to promote photonics innovation through entrepreneurship.

“Entrepreneurship plays a critical role in driving discovery in commercial applications in our field,” Rogan said. “Over 90% of companies in the optics and photonics community are small businesses, adding to over 3000 in the U.S. alone.”

The 2020 Luminate Finals Competition at OSA’s FiO + LS Conference begins at 10:30 a.m. Monday, Sept. 14. The conference, spread across four days, is organized around the themes of quantum technologies and virtual reality and augmented vision.

Funding for the $25 million, five-year Luminate NY program is being provided through Empire State Development and the transformative Finger Lakes Forward Upstate Revitalization Initiative, which aims to draw OPI industries to the Finger Lakes region.
Sep 2020
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