Zooming in, expanding out: professor builds business out of imaging research

Medical Biophysics professor Jeff Carson, left, CEO of Spectral Devices Inc., and his former PhD student, and company CTO, Mohamadreza Najiminaini, show off one of the specialized filter technologies they have developed for use with multispectral imaging cameras.

Paul Mayne // Western NewsMedical Biophysics professor Jeff Carson, left, CEO of Spectral Devices Inc., and his former PhD student, and company CTO, Mohamadreza Najiminaini, show off one of the specialized filter technologies they have developed for use with multispectral imaging cameras.

Jeff Carson saw a picture-perfect opportunity to spin his lab work into a new company.

The Medical Biophysics professor, whose research focuses on biomedical imaging applications, including photoacoustic tomography to detect breast cancer, recently applied his skills in multispectral imaging and launched Spectral Devices Inc. Located in Western’s Research Park, the company is developing a vast array of filtered lenses to be used in everything from agriculture and aerospace, to industrial automation and satellites.

Carson’s new imaging equipment can even be used to determine the heat of a pepper, the proper pigment of fabric and even if ketchup is the perfect shade of red, he said.

Earning his undergraduate degree and PhD at Western, Carson did his postdoctoral work at Stanford University, where he worked in areas of optical and absorbent spectroscopy – measuring properties of light, typically used in analyzing and identifying materials.

He returned to Western in 2003, looking for areas in which he could make a contribution. One opportunity he saw was in expanding multispectral imaging and trying to apply spectroscopy (which allows you to look at concentrations of molecules) to imaging.

“Taking a picture of your skin, for example, you can deduce something about the molecules that are inside your skin,” said Carson, who received an Ontario Centres of Excellence grant to help launch his business, of which he is not CEO. “I can do that by shining different colours of light. One problem with imaging is your body is opaque to light, like when you hold your hand up to sun.”

Multispectral imaging, however, collects a complete spectrum at every location of an image plane and is not restricted to the fixed 3-colour (red, green and blue) capability typically available in most cameras. It also works from ultraviolet to infrared light and ultimately, it is able to produce a more detailed, fine-tuned image – the zenith of zooming in.

Carson’s standard and custom multispectral cameras, developed with the assistance of his former PhD student Mohamadreza Najiminaini, the company’s CTO, provide optical imaging sensors that enable the detection of up to 16 distinct colours simultaneously, he explained.

“We started to experiment with different filters you could put in front of the camera, and in the process, started inventing some new filter technologies,” said Carson, adding Najiminaini, who specializes in photonics, created some of the filters using thin layers of metal.

“When you shine light through specific holes in the metal, it filters the light in a specific way. The nice thing about that is, we can pattern it how we like, so we thought, ‘Can we actually make a camera from this technology?’ We began refining filters and integrating them onto the camera sensors and realized we had a product.”

One potential use for Carson’s cameras lies in farming; farmers and larger farming companies looking to reap as much as possible from their land could fly over the property and take photos of crops. From this, they can visually determine where crops need more fertilizer, where they need to spray or where, specifically, crops are dying, Carson explained.

There are hundreds more applications in the fields of agriculture, ecology, oil and gas, oceanography and other areas where multispectral imaging is being used to better understand and improve the way we live, he added.

With distributors already lined up in places like Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Australia – and with meetings lined up in Italy, Germany, France and England – Carson is optimistic about the success of his new company and expects to see 10 to 20 new employees over the next couple years.

After attending numerous trade shows, Carson added he has a new appreciation for the world of sales.

“We’re meeting a lot of people who give us ideas on how they want to use the cameras, ones we necessarily haven’t thought of yet, and it’s then up to us to figure out how to design something around that,” he said, referring to a number of original equipment manufacturers whose products are used as components in the products of another company. “That’s where the customization comes in.”

Whether or not he would need to go full time with this venture, he’s not sure yet. For now, he’s definitely keeping his day job.

“The technology is sound and we’ve had some interest in investment, so the excitement and fun is winning out at the moment.”