Nano-scale 3D imaging
With a background in early-stage companies, Kimerling met Rafael Piestun, PhD, at a dinner party and became intrigued with the technology he was working on at University of Colorado (CU) Boulder.
"He even said, 'This is Nobel Prize-winning technology,'" says Kimerling. "It turns out that super-resolution microscopy was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2014, a year later."
Kimerling says partnering with Piestun to co-found Double Helix Optics was a natural. "He was on the technical side, not the business side," she notes. "So we spent about nine months doing our 1,000 cups of coffee, meeting and me talking to him about business and him talking to me about technology."
The company quickly won Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants from the National Science Foundation and worked on prototypes at the JILA and COSINC labs at CU. "That validated the potential of the technology and gave us some initial capital," says Kimerling. "Using machinery through CU was invaluable in our very early days."
In 2017, Double Helix unveiled its first product, the Spindle "to add 3D as a third dimension of analysis to super-resolution microscopy," says Kimrling, and won the $1 million Luminate prize the following year. The next iteration, the Spindle², debuted in 2019.
Cutting-edge optics underpin Double Helix's product line. "The core technology is phase masks," says Kimerling, describing a "hologram/lens" that generates 3D imagery from 2D imaging systems. "We etch different designs in order to generate different responses to a 2D imaging system. It could be a machine vision camera or it could be a microscope objective. The ida is: By inserting our technology into the pupil plane or the aperture of an existing 2D system, we alter the response in a way that, instead of throwing away information at what's not at the focal plane -- or the surface -- we capture that information. We grab it above and below. That's how we get 3D information."
For production of optics, Double Helix enlisted Rochester Photonics, since acquired by California-based VIAVI OSP. "They [VIAVI] had the manufacturing capabilities, and we also wanted to keep manufacturing in the United States," says Kimerling. "They were the best U.S. partner for us at the time we were looking."
Double Helix utilizes an Idaho-based contract manufacturer for machined parts, then assembles the final products by integrating sub-assemblies with optics in-house in Boulder. "No one does everything," says Kimerling. "Even if you outsource to a contract manufacturer, they're going to outsource parts." She notes that the fact that the company built the prototypes made for better manufacturing.
"You learn a lot. Having to do the selection, having to do the research, you get a lay of the land. As we grew, we looked to do contract manufacturing with a more specialized organization. . . . You learn that you know your system better than any outsourced manufacturer ever will -- or at least you have several years' lead time on them."
"Our first customers were scientific researchers," says Kimerling, noting that most are in life sciences, but also in materials science. "There's a lot of new discovery with our technology. Our user community uses it in order to uncover new knowledge about the structure and replication of viruses, bacteria, or cancer cells."
She highlights work on stress granules in the brain and associated with ALS and dementia done in partnership with the Parker Lab at the CU BioFrontiers Institute. "They wanted to understand the replication process of these granules. . . . Because they're so small, they needed our technology to visualize the structure and substructure of these cellular components." With viruses and bacteria, the Spindle² allows for "a view of the entire structure, rather than the surface or a general volumetric view."
The idea is catching on in a big way: Annual growth has eclipsed 40 percent in recent years, according to Kimerling.
Challenges: Tariffs have been a big hurdle for Double Helix, says Kimerling. "You had to learn some new rules," says Kimerling. "It reinforces I would like to maintain as much of my supply chain locally as I can. . . . You don't want the system to be on hold because one component is being held up from a sourcing perspective."
Optics can be especially difficult to source, she adds. "Not every lens is created equal. . . . Can you get the piece you need in the size and with the tolerances you need?"
Opportunities: COVIID-19 has spurred a renewed emphasis in scientific research. "There's an acceleration," says Kimerling. "The typical pharma development cycle is 10 years and billions of dollars. Now there's this new urgency that people want to advance science quicker. That's helpful to a company like ours, where we have the tools to help you advance science."
She adds, "We have to support continued innovation in science. We have COVID today but it could be something else tomorrow."
She also sees an opportunity for the Spindle² as a tool for manufacturers working at the nano-scale, particularly those in electronics. "You want to inspect it in 3D. One important thing is we enable you to see in 3D in a single shot. There's no scanning required."
Needs: "As a young, growing company, it's all about accessing great human capital and matching our needs with skill sets," says Kimerling. "We're always interested in resources that help us get where we want to go faster, and sometimes that people, sometimes that's partnerships, and sometimes that's investment."
"We really enjoy collaborating with local labs," says Kimerling, noting that Double Helix is working with researchers investigating everything from climate change to biomolecule development.