Technically, Atocera Inc. is the result of a shaving accident.
Back in 2012, Saif Islam, a UC Davis professor of electrical and computer engineering, was in the campus labs building silicon micro-walls for solar panels. During the process of cutting semiconductor material into small slices, something unexpected happened.
“While we were slicing, we came up with some slices that were very sharp,” Islam says. “So sharp that they could cause bleeding when handling if you’re not careful.”
He realized these ultra-sharp slices of semiconductor material, called wafers, could be used in other areas. With the same machine used to make computer chips, he could make thousands of silicon-based blades at once to be used for shaving and cataract surgery. This breakthrough led to the launch of Atocera (formerly Nano-Sharp) in 2014.
The blade itself is only two atoms wide and sharper than steel. The machine enables Islam to produce 5,000 blades at a time, which makes them much cheaper than blades currently in use by eye doctors.
“After we were convinced we could sharpen semiconductors to make them as sharp as a useful blade, we found that there are companies making such blades with silicon, diamonds and sapphire,” he says, “and people pay around $50 each for the silicon blades while diamond and sapphire blades could cost a few hundred to a thousand dollars.”
Doctors he spoke with told him standard blades were too expensive. But silicon blades for under $20? This sounded almost too good to be true, especially for cataract surgeons tasked to handle the relentless flood of baby boomers. The World Health Organization predicts that by 2020, 32 million cataract operations will be performed every year (up from 12 million in 2000).
Atocera’s intellectual property covers both shaving and surgical blades. But with surgical blades being simpler than shaving blades in terms of safety, Islam decided to focus on those first. The startup team of two full-time staff members and five consultants has raised more than half a million in funding so far, mostly from science grants. This year, Atocera received an award of about $150,000 as a Small Business Innovation Research Phase I project.
In an abstract Islam co-wrote with Matthew Ombaba, Atocera’s engineering lead and SBIR principal investigator, he says the atomically sharp disposable blades “will address the need for low cost blades used in cataract surgery, tissue cutting and hair removal applications.” This technology, he notes, has the potential to truly benefit surgeons, who prefer a single-use blade.
“Conventional metal blades experience oxidation and become blunt over time due to micro-chipping, rusting and burr formation,” they wrote. “However, surgeons in most countries reuse them on several patients due to their high cost (around $50 per blade) resulting from a serial manufacturing process. Such practice may lead to a risk of compromising patient safety.”
This SBIR award will help Atocera move toward commercialization as the startup develops its manufacturing process, conducts lab tests for blade integrity, and mechanical and maneuvering stability, and eventually goes into large-scale production.
After connecting with doctors in Sacramento and Davis (as well as doctors in India, Kenya and Turkey), Islam received feedback on his prototypes, which he plans to incorporate into future designs. Suggestions include: controls to adjust the blade’s sharpness, a self-cleaning mechanism and non-sticking properties, so protein and other cells wouldn’t get stuck on the blade.
“I think this is a disruptive technology compared to the standard blade,” says Achyut Dutta, CEO of Banpil Photonics, an optics company in Santa Clara. “This one is completely based on semiconductors. For $5 you can get a surgical blade that you can use several times because the sharpness cannot go away.”
Dutta has been in touch with Islam for a potential collaboration that would equip the silicon blades with multispectral image sensors. These sensors could potentially show surgeons not only the depth of an incision, but also any detection of certain conditions in the blood, such as diabetes.
“In the future, this blade can be integrated with such sensors,” Dutta says. “It will be an intelligent blade.”
For now, Islam wants to concentrate on finalizing the design as he seeks FDA approval. In the first quarter of 2017, he plans to apply for more government funding and connect with investors to raise an additional $3 to $5 million to help with manufacturing.
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