Translational Imaging Innovations (TII), which will be presenting at CED’s Venture Connect summit on April 7, is on a quest to deliver sight-saving medical breakthroughs faster. The startup, which is based in Hickory but has a majority of employees working in RTP, does this by integrating imaging science workflows and advanced analytics for ophthalmic research and trials.
For Founder and CEO Eric Buckland, TII is his second startup in the ophthalmology space after leaving his first career in fiber optics and telecommunications. At his first startup, Bioptigen, Buckland was also working to bring innovative imaging solutions to the ophthalmic translational research community before the business was acquired by Leica Microsystems in 2015. (“Translational research” is research aimed at “translating,” or converting, results from basic research into results that directly benefit humans.)
After the Bioptigen exit, Buckland found he was still enticed by some of the problems with research and clinical trials that his first startup hadn’t directly addressed. Namely, he said, that the full value was not being extracted out of eye images, with data management a key problem. Solving that problem is why Buckland formed TII in 2019.
TII’s suite of software products manage the imaging workflows and build databases of information to help clinical trials work with fewer frustrations. Buckland said the startup is building an entire tool set with a common data and workflow model so that different stakeholders can play their roles in the process of discovering information from sets of images in a structured and controlled way, from the beginning to end of the process.
“The reason we call ourselves Translational Imaging Innovations is, the objective isn’t just to do research, to write papers,” Buckland said. “The objective is to uncover medical insights in a way that allows us to use those to define new endpoints in clinical trials and actually use them in trials.”
So far, TII’s early partner clients include some at major universities like NYU and the Medical College of Wisconsin. Translational has also shown progress in its funding, raising $3.5 million in Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants in its first three years and bringing in a seed round with local angels for $600,000. In the coming months, TII is looking to raise a Series A round, likely targeting $10 million.
Buckland said TII’s mission goes far beyond just vision. Ophthalmology is a tool to identify health issues that affect the entire body.
“Our view is that by unleashing the power of the eye, we will change medicine,” Buckland said. “The eye in general is a portal for our health. It’s not just about vision, but it’s about neurological disease, about diabetes. It’s about cardiac disease, immune disorders. It’s a window to our cardiovascular and our neurological system.”
Coming into his second startup, Buckland knew he needed to create a team with the right experience and expertise to really push the idea off the ground.
“Even if you’ve done it before, everything is new again,” Buckland said.
It’s important to focus on product-market fit before becoming too attached to any one idea of what the business will be, he added.
“Entrepreneurs come into the problem with a set of tools,” Buckland said. “So we have been particularly focused on not being overly enamored with what we’re starting with and making sure we’re really focused on what customers are saying about what they like—but more importantly, what they don’t like—about what we’re doing.”
Covid’s impacts—both good and bad
Beginning a clinical trials-based tech business in 2019, there’s no doubt that Covid made an impact on the market TII serves. Some of the interactions TII started with potential customers just completely stopped in 2020. They lost a year of what could have been spent traveling, meeting face-to-face and looking at clients’ workflows.
But there were also silver linings. Translational was able to more effectively focus on its tech, infrastructure and the research objectives of its awarded grants.
Covid also caused the industry to realize that cloud-based medical management is here to stay, a major boost for a startup working in that area.
“Covid has very rapidly changed expectations of how the medical community is going to work in the connected environment,” Buckland said. “So for companies who are positioned to address that, I think it’s a huge opportunity. And that’s where we intend to be.”
TII’s goals this year are to complete its integration of infrastructure and data model under its software products and ensure that the user experience is world-class, Buckland said. They also hope to recruit a strong sales and marketing team and product director, while building a community out of those using the software.
“This is a software product and if people don’t love it, they won’t use it,” Buckland said. “So we want to make a product so that the user experience is something that they want to live with every day.”