New Plymouth company plays big part in portable brain trauma scanner
Family-owned New Plymouth firm Precision Microcircuits is partnering 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 can 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," says managing director Rob Carruthers. "It will flow on to other products."
Mr 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 "will be impossible," he says.
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 will be a lower-volume product with higher technical capacity, Mr Carruthers says.
Initially the firm will 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.
Mr Carruthers met Mr Maev via Callaghan Innovation scientist Paul Harris and the relationship developed when they met in Canada. He says Mr Maev is "a very smart man and very commercially focussed for an academic."
Mr Maev, who visited New Zealand at the invitation of Callaghan this month, says his own research gained impetus from attending an ultrasound conference in Brighton in 1986, where the 3000 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. Mr 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 Mr 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 Mr 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," Mr Maev says. "You cannot fail too much."
BusinessDesk receives funding to help cover the commercialisation of innovation from Callaghan Innovation.