C. Light Technologies Monitors Neurological Health in the Blink of an EyeBy Jeff Simnick
C. Light Technologies Monitors Neurological Health in the Blink of an Eye
C. Light Technologies is a Berkeley, California based neurotech and A.I. company using the most accurate commercially-available eye tracker to better understand your brain, starting with multiple sclerosis. Their tracking scanning laser ophthalmoscope (TSLO) takes a ten-second eye scan with one-micron tracking accuracy that could reveal a patient’s brain health 120x more sensitively than existing eye trackers. I sat down with their co-founder, Christy Sheehy, to learn more about her vision for the future of C. Light.
Neurodegenerative diseases cost the U.S. healthcare system $800 billion annually. These include conditions like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ALS, and Multiple Sclerosis (MS), which affect many of our family, friends, and colleagues. Specifically, MS costs the healthcare system $28 billion a year and is a particularly debilitating, highly unpredictable disease that impacts approximately 950,000 patients in the U.S. MS is a unique neurodegenerative disease because it has many therapeutics approved to treat the root cause. Currently, there is no single test that can be used as a gold standard prognostic or monitoring tool. So, physicians use a variety of tests to get a better idea of MS progression such as neurostatus exams (e.g. bedside exams, timed 25 foot. walks, strength tests, etc), blood tests, MRIs, Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT), and visually evoked potentials (VEPs). C. Light Technologies is a neurotech and A.I. start-up company aiming to help physicians better identify, monitor, and treat MS using an innovative new approach that utilizes a 10-second scan of eye motion.
“Multiple Sclerosis is unique. It’s the only neurodegenerative disease with approved therapies that can directly act on the underlying disease mechanism and not just treat symptoms. However, physicians and patients have a hard time deciphering whether a medication is working quickly, at the expense of harmful side effects and high drug costs. Actions to slow or stop disease progression early on in the disease course, by getting on the right medication sooner, can ultimately shape future patient disability outcomes. At our core, C. Light’s mission is to fundamentally change disease prognosis and monitoring, not only for MS, but for all neurodegenerative conditions.” – Dr. Christy K. Sheehy, Ph.D., Co-Founder
C. Light has developed a ten-second eye scan that could reveal a patient’s brain health 120x more sensitively than existing eye trackers and incorporates A.I. to tell doctors if a patient’s condition is getting worse and if their medical treatments are working. Currently, C. Light is using their eye scan to monitor MS but has plans to apply it to Alzheimer’s in the near future.
“The back of your eye is actually the front of your brain. We use A.I. paired with eye tracking to create a digital fingerprint of your neurological health, with unprecedented speed and sensitivity” – Dr. Zachary Helft, Ph.D., Co-Founder
C. Light hopes to enable better outcomes and peace-of-mind for patients, improve treatment feedback for physicians, reduce overall healthcare costs for payers, and create fast, objective outcome measurements for therapeutic developers. Their revenue model is based on reducing the need for repeated MRIs and selling an annual subscription to neurologists, that pays for itself within 3-6 months.
An Eye Towards the Future: Building C. Light Technologies
“The first time I saw my photoreceptors, the small cells in the back of the eye that detect color, shining back at me, I realized our high-resolution retinal eye-tracker could unambiguously track fixation on the cellular level” – Dr. Christy Sheehy, Ph.D., Co-Founder
Christy has always been fascinated with vision because, “the eye is the window to the brain”, an aphorism that holds special meaning for her as her family has a history of neurodegenerative disease, including an aunt with Alzheimer’s. It was while getting her Ph.D. in Vision Science at Austin Roorda’s lab at UC Berkeley that the idea for C. Light was born. Dr. Sheehy designed over eight tracking scanning laser ophthalmoscope (TSLO) systems for university research centers as part of her dissertation and was excited by the commercialization potential of the technology. So, she decided to pursue a career as a female entrepreneur in STEM and dug into building C. Light Technologies.
C. Light went through a series of incubators and accelerators including the Coulter Foundation’s C3i (sponsored by the National Institute of Health), Free Ventures, the California Life Sciences FAST Program, and are currently in the Berkeley SkyDeck accelerator. Through this process, Christy met her co-founder, Dr. Zachary Helft, Ph.D. Christy partnered with Dr. Helft because, “with our powers combined, we are the best team for this particular problem we are tackling.” Zach brings ten years of neuroscience, regulatory, and drug development experience to the team, including helping launch Regeneron’s first large-scale biologic, EYLEA, a treatment that slows or stops blindness. They have also recently added Aidan Leonard, an MBA student from UC Berkeley Haas, as business development lead to grow and refine their business model.
Together, the team has built a series of successes. They have research devices at UCSF, UC Berkeley, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and the University of Houston. They have been gathering clinical data on their prototype device through an institutional review board-approved study at UCSF studying eye motion in patients with neurodegenerative disease. This study was done in collaboration with Dr. Ari Green, a world-renowned MS specialist who leads UCSF’s MS clinic, through a shared National Institutes of Health (NIH) Small Technology Transfer Research (STTR) grant. Their TSLO has been tested on hundreds of MS patients and healthy controls and their results are soon to be published. Additionally, the team developed strong intellectual property securing their technology and methods. C. Light has been focusing on using their A.I. to extract as much value from the study’s unique data as possible and, with data from over 200 MS patients, their data science team is close to hitting 80% accuracy in MS disability prediction, a key threshold on the road to FDA approval. To fund all this growth, C. Light raised $100,000 in angel funding (through a syndicate created for them), $45,000 from small venture funds (powered by First Round Capital and Bow Capital), $100,00 from Berkeley SkyDeck, and almost half a million dollars in non-dilutive government grants from the NIH.
All the while, they have stayed an agile, resourceful startup. Their current team of fourteen people includes students from UC Berkeley and a 2-3 person data science team, which builds their machine learning algorithms. And, while not focused on revenue at this stage, they will have received $103,300 in revenue from research institutions for 2019 and are looking to form pharmaceutical partnerships within the next year.
Seeing the Opportunity and the Challenges
“Clinical adoption is the ultimate hurdle. Changing the paradigm of neurology from reactionary to preventative requires innovative solutions like ours.” – Dr. Christy Sheehy, Ph.D., Co-Founder
The neurodiagnostics market is a $15.7 billion market that is growing at a CAGR of 9%. Of that, C. Light is targeting the functional neurodiagnostics sub-market (think EEG, EMG, and fMRI) of $3 billion. Competing for this market within MS are pupil trackers, VEPs (visualized evoked potential tests), blood tests, and MRI-based A.I. image analyses. Existing bedside exams suffer from doctor subjectivity, are time intensive, and can’t detect symptoms as early as the C. Light eye scan could. C. Light’s closest competitors are pupil eye-trackers, which are slowly making their way into the broader healthcare space. However, early data indicates C. Light’s TSLO will outperform them on time required (ten seconds), patient risk (non-invasive by OSHA standards), data quality (one-micron tracking accuracy, which increases predictive capabilities), and cost. In fact, seventy-five percent of the recorded eye motion data from the UCSF study was less than 150 microns in size, a readout that would be invisible to many existing solutions.
With such cutting edge technology, C. Light is eager to grow. To get there, they are currently looking to raise $850,000 in the near team and $3 million within the year to hit their FDA clearance milestones. The exact amount is in flux, however, as they are applying to several NIH and National Science Foundation (NSF) grants.
Many patients go to see the doctor every year, get their check up, and have simple tests administered, like blood pressure tests, to understand their physical body and heart health. C. Light’s big picture vision is to include neurodiagnostic testing as part of a patient’s routine medical care to identify MS, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ALS, concussions, and other neurological disorders before the brain begins degenerating, so effective medical treatment can be used. Doing so will create a normative database of neurological disease that has never existed before in terms of type and quality. Such a database can be mined for a multitude of therapeutics and diagnostics that can provide much needed improvements in care and quality of treatment for patients suffering from neurological disorders. Patients, doctors, and the healthcare community are waiting and watching to see just how far C. Light Technologies can peer into the window to the brain.