By Hilary Klassen
“Entrepreneurship is very exciting and nerve-wracking. There are dark days and fantastic days!” says Mike Wesolowski.
As a kid, Mike Wesolowski imagined a future for himself as somewhat of a “mad professor,” perhaps with the signature Einstein hair. Fast forward a couple of decades and he’s a version of that, designing innovative medical technology that’s already transforming the future.
Wesolowski was a science and tech guy almost from day one. His physician father and teacher mother encouraged scientific exploration and indulged his crazy ideas – like trying to build a hover-board for a science fair or conjuring ways to harvest more energy from the sun and direct it to Earth.
Being exposed to diverse perspectives while growing up in Newfoundland gave him an expanded worldview. Higher education loomed large in the Wesolowski family and Mike eventually earned a PhD in physics from the University of Waterloo. There he learned from the likes of Nobel Prize winner Dr. Donna Strickland and pursued research in nanotechnology with his supervisor Dr. Walter Duley. For his thesis work he used one of the highest intensity lasers in the world to blast materials and use the resulting plasma to create new nanomaterials.
It was only after completing his academic track that Wesolowski remembered the other part of his imagined future – the desire to start his own research company. “I wanted to start the next GE or Bell Labs,” he says.
Immersive technology: Technology that aims to digitally emulate the physical world and stimulate a user’s senses to create the perception of immersion. Most commonly, this is done with a headset.
Virtual reality (VR): A fully digital environment with perceptually real optical and auditory sensations, usually experienced through a headset. The environment is interactive and could be based on real life or completely fabricated. Simply put, the headset fools the eyes into seeing things as if immersed in a space.
360 Video: Technology that captures the entire scene around the camera and produces real footage, not simulations. 360 Video can feel immersive when played back via a VR headset and is a great experiential learning tool. While VR is more interactive, 360 Video is more observational.
Luxsonic: The name comes from two Latin words, lux (light) and sonus (sound). Medical images are formed using either light or sound. Light and sound are the core of all radiology imaging technology.
Sievert: A unit of measurement for radiation (thus SieVRt is an inside joke for radiologists and the software’s creators).
Pioneering medical imaging
Enter Luxsonic. Wesolowski and a colleague launched Luxsonic Technologies Inc. in 2014 while Wesolowski was finishing a postdoctoral fellowship with Dr. Paul Babyn at Royal University Hospital. Luxsonic is a leading developer of immersive medical imaging technology. Operating out of Innovation Place, a research park adjacent to the University of Saskatchewan (U of S), the company creates products and services designed to improve medical education and training as well as healthcare delivery.
The company’s first project aimed at helping radiologists with their workflow. “Basically, radiologists sit in front of three computer monitors and look at medical images all day. We thought we could create a more mobile workflow for them so they could work when they’re at home, on the road, or at conferences,” CEO Wesolowski explains.
Luxsonic entered a tech venture challenge through the U of S’s Industrial Liaison Office (now Innovation Enterprise). For the challenge, Luxsonic developed a prototype for a dual-screen foldable monitor that would enable users to “stash and dash.” When attached to a laptop computer, it would replicate radiologists’ ideal workflow. Luxsonic formulated a business plan but hit a roadblock when it started engaging with manufacturing partners. “We realized that hardware was hard, expensive, and not really something you could do off the side of your desk,” Wesolowski recalls.
The new VR frontier
Luxsonic temporarily shelved the idea. Then in 2016, the new crop of virtual reality (VR) headsets was released and Wesolowski realized Luxsonic could provide that mobile workflow for radiologists with VR and let somebody else do the hardware. Luxsonic engaged with a U of S computer science class which allows students to work with a company to solve a problem and help it develop something. “We moved forward with a very basic prototype for the software and the students did a great job of building that. We used that as a launching point,” Wesolowski says. Funding from the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC-IRAP), which supports technological innovation, allowed Luxsonic to hire some of the students from that project, one of whom is still with the company today.
Now, as an adjunct professor of medical imaging at the U of S, Wesolowski has a front-row seat to developments and new processes in healthcare. To develop SieVRt, its VR radiology imaging suite, Luxsonic engaged in a lot of customer validation, including several sit-down sessions with radiologists to observe their workflow. The feedback took the original software through several iterations.
That sense of collaboration has continued even after SieVRt’s 2019 launch. “You want to have those key opinion leaders on side, so even after you build your minimum viable product, they’ll be the strongest supporters of you and of your product. If they feel invested in the process, they will naturally want you to be successful and help you launch your product,” says Wesolowski.
Being able to make a difference using this kind of technology is what really excites me. I want to change the world for the better and this is the way it seems I’m able to do that
The business frontier
Early on, Wesolowski wanted to prove to himself that he could build a medical technology company that was self sustaining. He wanted to generate revenue, but he’s a physicist. He had never been an entrepreneur or gone to business school. In 2017, as they were building SieVRt, Luxsonic began offering contract services for clients that were interested in immersive technology, like augmented reality (AR) or VR. If a health authority or medical institution wanted to implement VR, Wesolowski would consult with them and help them develop a strategy for technology integration. If an organization was interested in creating content, Luxsonic would produce 360 Degree Video for them. Luxsonic also began providing full VR software development for its customers.
The bonus from doing contract work is that Luxsonic has its finger directly on the pulse of their customer’s interest in the applications of immersive technologies. It also gives them a great sense of what customers are willing to pay for, which can help drive further product development. “Basically, we’ve self-funded and bootstrapped the company and we’ve been fairly successful so far,” Wesolowski notes.
Early projects producing 360 Degree Video led to a recent opportunity to create an immersive pediatric MRI simulator for the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA). The goal was to reduce children’s anxiety before they go into the MRI machine – a lower anxiety can lead to improvement in scan quality and may even reduce the number of canceled scans.
Luxsonic developed that pediatric MRI simulator with the SHA over the past year, and it was put into service clinically in September 2019 at Jim Pattison Children’s Hospital for its MRI Ready program. “We’ve been seeing pediatric patients go through the MRI with less anxiety and without the need for sedation. That’s a huge win!” says Wesolowski.
I think the biggest mistakes I made were chasing ideas without really validating them with customers.
From hospital rooms to deep space, it’s about relationships
Several other emerging Luxsonic technologies are geared to improving patient experience. A new project in palliative care being developed with academic collaborators could help patients briefly “escape” the Palliative Care Unit by virtually transporting them elsewhere. Another project, with Dr. Susan Tupper, a pain consultant with the SHA, will help family members of dementia patients identify pain in their loved ones using immersive VR to teach and train caregivers.
In 2019, Luxsonic landed a contract with the Canadian Space Agency to develop a concept for medical training on deep space missions. The program will help astronauts refresh their skills while they’re travelling into the cosmos. The project is currently expanding into product development. “It’s another interesting way we can develop customer-centred products by working with our contract customers, to develop something they can use, and we can then co-monetize,” explains Wesolowski.
Taking an idea from concept to product is no mean feat. Wesolowski credits his success in part to building relationships. “For some reason, I seem to have a good ability to form relationships with people and I’m pretty enthusiastic about what we’re doing as a company, so that seems to resonate with people.” He has a genuine interest in the work people are doing and is up front with them about how Luxsonic can potentially help with their processes. He’s been able to grow his network across the world and to form relationships and collaborate with academic institutions, large corporations (including major MedTech companies like Siemens and GE), and lots of clients. “We’re starting research collaborations with some of the biggest medical research institutes in the world, like McMaster, Harvard, and the Cleveland Clinic.”
Wesolowski finds that entrepreneurship is a learning process that includes making little mistakes on most days and absorbing the lessons. “Early on in my career, I was still trying to figure out this whole entrepreneurship gig. I think the biggest mistakes I made were chasing ideas without really validating them with customers,” he says. He learned to keep the company’s focus on areas where it had expertise and to ensure the ideas Luxsonic pursued would solve a real customer problem.
Currently, Wesolowski’s biggest challenge is trying not to take on too much personally in the business. In some respects, as a small startup, everybody at Luxsonic has to do everything. “Focusing on the bigger challenges for a CEO can be a struggle sometimes when I’m dealing with day-to-day problems.” He’s looking into equity financing, which would allow him to bring in more people to manage routine business matters so he can focus on higher-level strategic planning, raising money, hiring the best people, and moving the company forward. Wesolowski says the firm has a pretty good system for hiring tech staff and product developers. The talent pool in the tech field can be fairly small in Saskatchewan, but when the company puts out a call, people apply from all over the world, including South America, the US, and India. Growth is anticipated and Wesolowski ponders how to scale a company up from 10 people to 100 or even 1,000 people.
A related challenge is carving out time for family and personal wellbeing. At home, he has a wife, two kids, a cat, and some fish. “It’s a balancing act to have a good family life and regularly take care of physical and mental health while averting crises at 3:00 am.”
Leadership is not one-size-fits-all. I think the key for any leader – not that I’m an expert – is to quickly be able to identify the needs of people you work with and understand how to support those needs.
Building trust through transparency
Wesolowski’s management style is fairly transparent. “Everyone on the team knows everything about the business.” He finds that transparency builds trust and increases staff buy-in. It helps people feel they are part of something and that they have impact. “Leadership is not one-size-fits-all. I think the key for any leader – not that I’m an expert – is to quickly be able to identify the needs of people you work with and understand how to support those needs.”
In the broader tech universe, Wesolowski admires aspects of the work of Elon Musk and Bill Gates for the ways they are using technology to shape the world. But as an academic and a physicist, his greatest admiration is reserved for inventors. Earlier examples include Archimedes, Isaac Newton, Nikola Tesla, and Marie Curie. He also greatly admires John Bardeen, William Shockley, and Walter Brattain, who created the first working transistor in the 1940s. “The transistor is the fundamental piece that makes all our modern electronics work. It completely changed the world,” says Wesolowski.
Luxsonic has benefited from being in Saskatchewan. The first trial of SieVRt in a hospital setting, is being supported by Innovation SK and its Made in Saskatchewan Technology (MIST) program, as well as by the SHA. The company recently completed the world’s first international medical diagnosis, accomplished by two physicians separated by a continent but sharing the same virtual environment. No doubt healthcare in remote areas of Saskatchewan will soon benefit from this use of VR.
Wesolowski first tried VR back in the early 90s at the base of the CN Tower in Toronto. It left a lasting impression and he was hooked. “Being able to make a difference using this kind of technology is what really excites me. I want to change the world for the better and this is the way it seems I’m able to do that,” he says.
First published in the March 2020 edition of The Business Advisor.