Research & Innovation

Disrupting Skin Cancer: Stevens Entrepreneurship Training Key to Transformative Technology

A long-time collaboration between Amir Mirbeik ’18 and associate professor Negar Tavassolian picks up speed, thanks to a Small Business Technology Transfer grant that will boost the pair’s efforts to bring a handheld cancer imaging device to market.

While the incidence of cancer is on the rise, the cancer death rate is actually decreasing, thanks in part to diagnostic procedures like biopsies. In fact, skin cancer biopsies increased 142% between 2000 and 2015, and the total biopsy market is soon expected to exceed $14 billion in the United States alone.

That’s hopeful news for the 9,500 Americans who receive a skin cancer diagnosis every single day—but biopsies are invasive procedures, and the sheer number of them stresses the resources of dermatology practices. Amir Mirbeik ’18 wants to change that. His startup RadioSight recently won a $256,000 Small Business Tech Transfer grant to support his ongoing collaboration with Stevens Institute of Technology’s associate professor Negar Tavassolian and bring the team’s handheld cancer imaging device to market.

Tapping the Electromagnetic Spectrum

Mirbeik joined Tavassolian’s lab as a doctoral student in 2014 with a plan to work on novel medical applications using a portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that’s underutilized for medical devices. It’s called millimeter-wave (mm-wave), and it’s best known for its role in airport scanners. There, mm-wave makes it possible to image through clothing or carry-on bags to check for weapons or other hazardous items. That same tech can also penetrate human tissue.

To make mm-wave work for medical imaging, Mirbeik invented an approach called ultra-high-resolution mm-wave imaging, for which he filed a patent in 2017. That’s the basis for his device — a handheld scanner that can distinguish between benign lesions and skin cancer as well as visualize tumor margins before or during surgical excisions.

Mirbeik began developing that device with the support of a Stevens Innovation and Entrepreneurship Doctoral Fellowship in 2015. The internal program helps Ph.D. students explore the commercialization value of their transformational research.

As Mirbeik’s Ph.D. program came to a close — culminating with his receipt of the campus-wide Best Dissertation award — he stayed on as a postdoctoral researcher in Tavassolian’s lab and gained entry to the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps (NSF I-Corps) program. Like the Stevens entrepreneurship program, I-Corps looks at real commercialization value. Mirbeik learned that nearly 90% of startups fail because, while the technology may be amazing, it simply doesn’t fill a specific need in the market.

“It was a really good experience for us,” he noted. “We got a lot of insight, and it actually changed our path moving forward.”

The original plan was to focus on detecting malignant tissue to confirm skin cancer. The I-Corp program sent Mirbeik out into the field to interview potential customers and figure out what he calls “the current pain in their practice.” It turns out that the real need is an imaging device that detects benign lesions. That would reduce the number of unnecessary biopsies.

“Currently, there’s a quite huge backlog to see a dermatologist — like on average 30 days,” explained Mirbeik. “If we’re able to reduce that backlog, we reduce that waiting time. That could have value for both patients and doctors.”

Back in the lab, the team optimized the imaging device and worked with a medical collaborator at Hackensack University Medical Center. They used the benchtop system on over 100 patients. The results were very promising though still under review.

Imaging to Scale

In 2020, Mirbeik took a leap and opened his startup, RadioSight. This year, he won a Small Business Technology Transfer grant to support continued collaboration between the startup and Tavassolian’s lab as the pair work to bring the imaging device to market.

Right now, the team is scaling the technology from a benchtop machine to a handheld device by integrating it on a single chip — similar to how a cell phone can pack massive computing power into a palm-sized device. That will make it possible to set up randomized clinical trials in hospitals all over the country.

Eventually, Mirbeik would love to see a handheld imaging device in as many dermatology practices as possible. There, the technology would help clinicians discern benign lesions and cancerous ones — without a biopsy. The device would also help visualize tumor margins to more accurately excise lesions, ensuring the removal of all cancer cells while preserving healthy tissue.

For Mirbeik, entrepreneurship training during his Ph.D. and postdoctoral work at Stevens made it possible for him to cut his own path. He says a startup brings challenges — "If you go work for a company, you just need to do the work that you're assigned. For your own business, you need to be everything.” — but also huge rewards, especially the opportunity to pour years of work into a project and see it through.

The entrepreneurship fellowship at Stevens focuses on disruptive technology — devices that shake up the status quo with ground-breaking improvements. For the patients who undergo more than 5 million skin biopsies every single year, the opportunity to trade an invasive procedure for an in-office scan would be precisely that.

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