May 31, 2022 • By The UCI Paul Merage School of Business
Like every successful entrepreneur, Farhad Daghighian started with a problem that no one had ever bothered to solve.
It was 2008, and he noticed that the existing technology used for PET imaging was bulky, expensive, and inconvenient. While PET scans are commonly used to evaluate organs and tissues for the presence of cancer, they are also used to detect early signs of heart disease and brain disorders. For millions of patients across the globe, the shortcomings of PET imaging translated into slow, inefficient care.
“Think about it this way,” Daghighian describes. “Your mother is having some cognitive issues, and you and her primary care physician finally convince her to see a neurologist. The neurologist suspects Alzheimer’s disease. She needs a PET scan to confirm her diagnosis so she can begin treatment promptly. Ideally, she’d have a PET scanner at her practice, but she doesn’t because PET scanners are huge, expensive machines. So instead, the neurologist refers your mom to a radiologist for a PET scan. Your mother’s appointment is in 2 weeks. A week later her neurologist sees the results that confirm her diagnosis. Treatment begins a week later. A full month after the initial diagnosis. This is bad for everyone, but especially the patient whose care is delayed. A point-of-care PET imaging system would have delivered the right treatment to the right patient at the right time.”
This scenario, inspired by Daghighian’s experience of caring for his mother throughout her battle with Alzheimer’s, formed the basis of his pitch for a new idea: a PET camera that was superior to existing technology in every dimension: precision, price, size, weight, and portability.
Daghighian took the first step toward bringing his vision to life by founding Prescient Imaging in 2008. With a PhD in high energy physics from UCI, he was ideally suited to developing new technology. “But I was a nuclear medicine person, not a businessperson, so I had a lot to learn,” he acknowledges. “I didn’t know how to translate my idea into the language of business and markets.”
Fortunately, he had shared his business idea with Ariel Beroukhim, a biomedical engineering student at UCI who had worked in Daghighian’s lab as a high school student. Intrigued by the concept of a precise, affordable, PET camera he had heard Daghighian describe several years earlier, Beroukhim asked Daghighian if he could flesh out the business model for Prescient Imaging for a class project.
Encouraged by the success of that class project, Daghighian and Beroukhim formed a team to compete in the Paul Merage School of Business’s 2012 Merage Business Plan competition, now called the New Venture Competition. They won the competition under the mentorship of the late Mike Mesemberink, a veteran of the nuclear medicine business. “Mike didn’t just help me articulate the vision for Prescient Imaging; he went on to teach and model countless aspects of starting and operating a business,” says Daghighian.
Winning the Merage Business Plan competition in 2012 was like jet fuel for Prescient Imaging. The accolade was instrumental in helping secure the first round of funding in 2013, Daghighian remembers. With that funding, he and his partners embarked on eight years of intensive R&D.
Over the past decade, Prescient Imaging earned a NIH grant, obtained two patents, built a brain imaging scanner called the BBX-PET, used it to image Alzheimer’s patients, secured FDA clearance, and formed a commercial management team. “The BBX-PET, is precise, affordable, compact, and light enough to go anywhere in a medical office building,” says Ron Lissak, COO of Prescient Imaging. In 2020, the highest-ranked web portal in radiology selected this product as one of the two finalists for the “Best New Product” category.
Prescient Imaging is currently focused on serving neurology patients. Alzheimer’s alone is a $355 billion problem in the U.S., emphasizes Daghighian, who remains passionate about the ways in which new technology can advance and facilitate diagnosis and treatment for patients like his mother.
But neurology is only the beginning. Now, with R&D in the rearview mirror, Daghighian is busy raising their next round of financing to further fund commercialization efforts. At the same time, he and his team are developing more applications for their PET scanner technology, both in the U.S. and abroad. They are currently working with a group at Yale University to develop a device for point-of-care, or interventional, heart imaging.
“Soon, I think you’ll see our devices used by physicians for applications beyond diagnostics, like an interventional nuclear cardiologist using our PET camera at the bedside or in the operating room to insert catheters or perform other procedures,” says Daghighian. “We’re excited to expand while staying focused on our mission to making imaging technology smaller, more accurate, and more affordable.”