If Vivek Kopparthi had his way, each community in developing countries around the world would have one of his devices. The co-founder and CEO of NeoLight, an Arizona-based healthcare startup, believes his company's backpack-sized device can significantly improve the survival rates of infants, particularly those who are afflicted with jaundice.

The concept behind this startup is strikingly straightforward. The treatment involves phototherapy, which basically uses targeted amounts of light to break down excess bilirubin molecules into water-soluble isomers that are then safely excreted by the body.

You might wonder, then, why infants still suffer from the effects of jaundice, even with such a supposedly simple treatment. It boils down to cost and ease-of-use.

"Conventional phototherapy devices are very expensive, and these can be difficult to maintain and operate," says Kopparthi, stressing the scarcity of such equipment, especially in low-income communities. "In contrast, our device fits in a backpack, is relatively affordable, and can be used with minimal training."

Shining Light on Better Neonatal Care

To put things into context, in the United States alone, an estimated 50 percent of term infants develop jaundice, and this figure rises to 80 percent among pre-term infants. This figure varies across ethnicity and geography, however. Incidence is higher among Asians and American Indians, and lower in Africans, for example.

One complication of neonatal jaundice is kernicterus, which is caused by excess bilirubin in the blood, often due to untreated jaundice. It can can be fatal if untreated - an occurrence more common in countries with less-developed medical systems.

"Kernicterus is a form of brain damage caused by excessive jaundice," writes Dr. Steven M. Shapiro MD, a pediatric neurologist and medical researcher. "The substance which causes jaundice, bilirubin, is so high that it can move out of the blood into brain tissue." He adds that aside from increased risk of death, this condition can also lead to cerebral palsy, hearing loss, vision problems, intellectual disabilities and more. "Other forms of more subtle bilirubin-induced neurological damage may exist, including auditory processing problems, and other problems of sensorimotor integration."

Hospitals and healthcare facilities usually employ specialized phototherapy equipment that output light in certain regions of the spectrum. Traditionally, such equipment use either halogen lamps and compact fluorescent tubes (CFT). However, light-emitting diodes (LED) have become a more viable alternative, given its higher irradiance and the ease by which its wavelength and emission range can be controlled.

"LED light source phototherapy is efficacious in bringing down levels of serum total bilirubin at rates that are similar to phototherapy with conventional (compact fluorescent lamp/CFL or halogen) light sources," states a study by Praveen Kumar, Deepak Chawla and Ashok Deorari for the Cochrane Neonatal Group.

Blue is the New Green

The most effective light for intensive   phototherapy is in the 430 to 490 nm wavelength range--blue light delivered to the greatest body surface area as possible. NeoLight utilizes LEDs to achieve a spectral irradiance twice the required minimum, and within a narrow bandwidth of 440 to 480 nm, which makes for a very effective treatment against jaundice. Even better, the device is significantly more energy-efficient than a standard incubator, using 98 percent less electricity. It can even run on solar power, if necessary.

The most attractive thing about NeoLight is the production cost of $120, which is significantly lower than the $5,000 or more that larger phototherapy products would usually cost to build. It's also very inexpensive to maintain, as it does not require parts to be replaced.

Kopparthi, along with co-founders Chase Garrett, Sivakumar Palaniswamy and Deepak Krishnaraju--all Arizona State University graduates--have raised $600,000 in seed funding so far, which is earmarked for product development, manufacturing partnerships, product validation, and in facilitating steps for FDA clearance.

Kopparthi says that his company intends to distribute the device on a one-for-one model. "Once we get FDA clearance to sell the device within the U.S., we plan to give a free unit to a deserving low-income community abroad, for every one we sell in the U.S. or Europe," he says.

Each New Life Matters

LED-based  phototherapy is not exactly a new idea. The team finds itself in the company of D-Rev's Brilliance, and IOP's BiliLED, which both leverage the advantages of LED in phototherapy for jaundice. However, NeoLight's main difference is its price and delivery model. It is useful to note that BiliLED was an academe-initiated proof-of-concept launched a decade ago. Meanwhile, Brilliance retails at $400--more than thrice NeoLight's intended cost.

Moreover, NeoLight's potential goes beyond treating jaundice. According to Kopparthi, other products are in the works, including a light-based treatment for hypothermia. If there's anything clear here, it's the power of the intent to change the world. "We started our company with zero dollars and the dream of saving lives," he says.

"Apart from saving infants from the lack of access to affordable healthcare, we also feel obligated to educate people about the effects of conditions like jaundice. Each new life matters."

Published on: Jun 27, 2016