12:00 AM

Ohio State team creates new company based on university invention

COLUMBUS – Ohio State University researchers have developed an MRI-compatible treadmill, which allows physicians to obtain MRI images of the heart immediately after exercise. The technology will soon be available to hospitals and patients everywhere through a new start-up company.

The creation of the company, EXCMR, Ltd., is a story of outstanding Buckeye collaboration. The research team that created the device draws from three Ohio State colleges. The student who worked on the invention and wrote the business plan has just been hired as EXCMR's first employee.

Each year, American cardiologists perform approximately 10 million treadmill exercise stress tests to evaluate patients with possible coronary artery disease. After exercise, doctors obtain images of the heart using ultrasound or other techniques.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) offers clearer images, but because MRI machines contain giant magnets, and treadmills are built using magnetic motors and materials, the two machines cannot be in the same room. The quest for better images of the heart at peak stress prompted a collaboration of Ohio State University heart specialists and engineers in an effort to save lives.

Led by Orlando "Lon" Simonetti, associate professor of internal medicine and radiology at Ohio State's Richard M. Ross Heart Hospital, researchers created a treadmill that could be located right next to the MRI to allow high definition imaging of the heart almost immediately after exercise. By developing a hydraulic power system to replace the electric motor, and using nonmagnetic materials, the treadmill could be safely used next to the MRI.

Other members of the inventor team, who also comprise the initial ownership and management group for EXCMR, are cardiologist Dr. Subha Raman, John Arnold, professor of engineering, and Eric Foster, who at the time was an OSU graduate student in mechanical engineering.

As part of Foster's engineering curriculum, he took a class at Fisher College of Business' Center for Entrepreneurship, which trains business and science students in technology commercialization and entrepreneurship. As part of the class, Foster created a business plan to bring the invention to market. The plan won second place in the 2008 Deloitte Business Plan Competition. The award carried enough money and professional services to begin putting the plan into action.

The university's Technology Licensing and Commercialization office began working early with the inventors and guiding them as they considered starting the company and licensing the university intellectual property. Along the way, the company was awarded a TechGenesis Grant from TechColumbus to assess the treadmill's commercial feasibility; was named "Outstanding Startup Business" at the 2008 Innovation Awards; and received a commercialization funding grant from the Global Cardiovascular Innovations Center, made possible by Ohio's Third Frontier Project.

Most stress imaging tests done today are performed using ultrasound or nuclear cameras and only a fraction of them involve MRI. Simonetti says one reason for this limited utilization of MRI is that drugs must be used to simulate the stress that the heart naturally experiences with exercise.

"With our machine, we are able to exercise patients to peak stress and obtain high-definition MRI images of their heart within 60 seconds," Simonetti said. "MRI images are higher resolution and we think the test will prove to be more accurate than other imaging methods. We hope the invention improves the accuracy of diagnosing patients with coronary artery disease."

While an early version of the machine has been used successfully at the OSU Medical Center for the past year, Simonetti says the totally MRI-compatible version is still being fine tuned. Researchers expect to start using it for clinical research studies in the next three months.

As the company grows they plan to setup manufacturing facilities in central Ohio and ramp up to five or more employees in the next year or two.

Simonetti says the availability of resources and assistance for starting the company has been incredible. "It's amazing how much support there is at Ohio State and TechColumbus to start something like this. The university is beginning to recognize the importance of this kind of activity among faculty and to encourage it. It seems to be a winning situation all around, although it's a lot of work; there's no question about that. Hopefully the payoff will come for the university in terms of revenue and notoriety."