Written by Andrew Seale

Few good ideas come at three in the morning, and probably less so at three a.m. in Toronto’s Kensington market. But for MolecuLight founder Dr. Ralph DaCosta, his middle-of-the-night neuronic firing sparked an idea that is changing the way clinicians look at bacteria in wounds.

It was 2007 and DaCosta was a PhD student researching optical molecular imaging technologies and how they can be used for endoscopic diagnosis of early gastrointestinal cancers. He was taking advantage of the midnight quiet in the back lab at Princess Margaret’s hospital, mimicking a surgical procedure for colon cancer on a rat and using a million dollar confocal microscope to examine a bright red fluorescent patch in the rat’s stomach.

He thought it was a tumour.

“I took a biopsy and sent it off to pathology,” he says. But he was so excited by the strangeness of what he saw that he brought his Blackberry flip phone to one of the oculars of the microscope and snapped a photo. “It was high definition at the time,” he says, pointing out that in reality the photo was probably less than a megabyte.

Walking home to Kensington it dawned on DaCosta: he’d just taken a picture of bacteria with a cellphone. “What if I could make an adapter to turn every doctor’s cellphone into a bacteria visualization device? You could see bacteria invisible to the naked eye,” he says. “That became the path.”

Up until that moment, there hadn’t been much research about the fluorescent signature of bacteria. And wound care was still very primordial, admits DaCosta, with doctors using things like feeling for heat to decide if something is infected or not.

“There’s an unmet need, it’s a growing problem in the world,” he says. “Wound infections and chronic wounds cost the world billions of dollars annually.”

The MolecuLight i:X takes the guess work out of it. It’s a sleek, handheld tool, much like a phaser or remote control, that allows clinicians to identify and target bacteria in skin and chronic wounds on the spot, in real-time with fluorescence imaging.

It’s also lightyears away from the “horrible looking” prototype DaCosta built in his Kensington loft.

“I spent several years writing grants and and protocols, calling Health Canada to get permission to test this prototype that I literally built on my kitchen counter,” he says. The company was officially founded in 2012, with DaCosta using a “massive” Series A funding round to start hiring his first people.

“Today we have a product that is globally distributed by Smith & Nephew… it was just launched in Europe in October and it has Health Canada and CE Mark approvals,” he beams.

All of this – this ten year journey from concept to global product – couldn’t have happened without the state of the art infrastructure in Toronto’s health and sciences sector that gave him room to explore his idea. His current lab is set up in the MaRS building.

“As a founder, it’s important to have the direct connection to my lab, and have a channel for those innovations to be commercialized through my business,” he says. “That kind of a relationship is fostered in Toronto in a way that isn’t done so elsewhere.”

DaCosta says he makes a point of bringing investors into the lab space to really drive connections between what he’s trying to do and what they can be a part of.

“That’s what helps the communication, when there’s a transparency between needing money and talking to investors,” he says. “I think Toronto is the definition of how investors and entrepreneurs should work together.”

Photos: Cameron Bartlett (www.snappedbycam.com)