Innovation From the Outside In: Olivia Ho Cheng, CEO of Aurora

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imageOlivia Ho Cheng, CEO

Olivia Ho Cheng, CEO of Aurora Imaging Technology Inc, North Andover, Massachusetts, was recently appointed to the international advisory board for the Britton Chance Center for Biomedical Photonics (BC CBMP), the first research laboratory focused on medical-imaging technology research and development in China. ImagingBiz spoke with her about the outside-in approach to research and development and the unique aspects of the Chinese marketplace that could make it a fertile breeding ground for new breakthroughs in diagnostic imaging.

ImagingBiz: Congratulations on being appointed to the international advisory board for the BC CBMP. You are among distinguished company that includes a Nobel laureate. What is the right time to bring a business perspective into a research institute? From your perspective, is it ever too soon?

Cheng: What we have found is that typically, a research laboratory or large university will take the inside-out approach: The researchers will conceptualize a product that has the potential to be very helpful, develop the product, and then try to find companies to commercialize it. On the other hand, at Aurora, we have taken the outside-in approach.

As a company that has been in the breast-imaging industry for a while, we understand the importance of continued research and development, but we also realize the heavy cost that often accompanies such efforts. We saw that we could bring our projects to the university or national laboratory and combine our vision with that of their researchers, resulting in products that are more viable for the marketplace. We felt that approach could be very effective.

ImagingBiz: China appears to have made medical-imaging research a significant priority with the founding of the BC CBMP. As the CEO of a dedicated breast MRI company, what do you see as the potential impact of biomedical photonics on medical imaging (in general) and on breast imaging (specifically)? Why is there a focus on photonics in China?

Cheng: I firmly believe that in the past 50 years, the medical quality system has improved drastically, and one contributor is imaging. If you can see a disease or abnormality, you can treat it better, so medical imaging has been critical. Breast cancer, specifically, can be elusive, but once you can see it, you can develop a better plan to target treatment. We want to tap into the think tank of the world to see if we can bring breast imaging to the next level.

We’re very happy with what we have done so far, but if we could identify breast-cancer markers, and if we can use imaging to identify the disease much earlier or more precisely, it will reduce suffering from the disease. We look to see which entities have the kind of research ability to help us reach this goal, and we want to align ourselves with them. Radiography has a dosage issue; MRI is currently the most benign screening technology because it’s a magnet, and then there’s ultrasound, a little lower on the technology bar because its depth is limited.

You need all kinds of imaging technology for different needs, and a laboratory focused on optical imaging may be helpful in furthering this development.

ImagingBiz: Beginning with the role of the institute’s namesake (photonics researcher Britton Chance, from the University of Pennsylvania), China appears to have made a concerted effort to build an international team, both through its board and through cooperative research with other countries. What is the significance of this global focus? Does it represent a departure for Chinese research?

Cheng: China is playing catch-up now. It wants to catch up with the Western world, and it has the world’s largest population, so it has a reason to want to use its experts to shorten the learning curve. That’s a very smart approach. Experts worldwide also see the large market there and know that if they can help out, we all benefit. It’s a win–win situation.

ImagingBiz: What is the incidence of breast cancer in China, and why is dedicated breast MRI particularly well suited for this demographic?

Cheng: There are several reasons that breast MRI is well suited for the Asian population. In the United States, among women 40 years and older, only 35% to 50% of women have dense breasts. In Asia, it’s 85% of women who have more dense breast tissue and less fat. Mammography is less effective for these patients. In addition, in Asian women, breasts tend to be smaller, and because the