Phi Optics, Inc.

Phi Optics, Inc., an optical microscope company, developed a technology that empowers life science researchers to explore deeper, discover more, and cure better.

The company’s patented technology, Quantitative Phase Imaging (QPI)—developed by Dr. Gabriel Popescu, associate professor in the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering at Urbana-Champaign—provides highly accurate and fast imaging of live cells and tissues. With QPI, life scientists can successfully monitor cells over long periods of time and observe their behavior when subjected to drug treatments or when affected by disease. Unlike current methods used in microscopy, QPI works without contrast agents the eventually kill live cells.

Popescu wanted to transfer the technology to a practical instrument that would help other researchers discover scientific breakthroughs. Under COO and principal scientist Dr. Catalin Chiritescu, Phi Optics was selected for the I-Start Entrepreneur Assistance program and used its professional services to establish the company structure. While participating in I-Start, Phi Optics sought business advice from many entrepreneurs-in-residence. One entrepreneur, Tim Hoerr, connected with the Phi Optics team and is now the company’s chief business development officer.

Phi Optics was one of 24 teams selected to participate in the nationwide NSF I-Corps program, resulting in accelerated product development and a more structured business model. Through the process, Phi Optics was able to begin development on the instrument—the CellVista Q1000. In addition, the company worked with EnterpriseWorks designer-in-residence to learn how to observe the the user’s environment and implement these findings into the product design. 

“University of Illinois offers a complete innovation ecosystem from A to Z,” says Chiritescu. “Through the OVPR (now VPEDI) pipeline, we were able to elevate an idea into a new technology that’s revolutionizing life science research.”