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Start-up - Therapixel

Patrick Philipon - Technoscope - 30/07/2013

Joint interview with Olivier Clatz and Pierre Fillard

Therapixel, a start-up based on Inria research, offers a device that can be used to view data and images without touching a screen or keyboard. This solution is eagerly awaited by surgeons, who cannot afford to make the slightest contact with unsterilised items in the operating theatre. We spoke to the company's Technical Director, Pierre Fillard, and its Chairman, Olivier Clatz.

What are your backgrounds?

P. Fillard:  I trained as a general engineer and was interested in image processing. In 2002-2003, I spent a year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I learnt about medical imaging. I did a PhD at the Inria Sophia Antipolis centre and a post-doc at the French atomic energy commission, the CEA (Neurospin), and was recruited by the Inria Saclay centre in 2009.

O. Clatz:  I also trained as a general engineer, then did a Master's, a PhD (at Inria and Harvard in Boston) and a post-doc, all on medical image processing. I had been working on my PhD for two years in the Asclepios team when Pierre arrived. I was hired by Inria (Sophia) in 2007.

How did the idea of joining forces to form a start-up come about, and what are your respective roles in the company?

P. Fillard:  We started talking about it during our PhDs. I wanted to develop the technology as far as it would go and have people using my algorithms! It was a sort of challenge too: a way of starting again from scratch. I wouldn't have done it alone though: there is chemistry there with Olivier.

O. Clatz:  These days, I tend to look after the business and administration aspects. Market research, searching for funding, meeting users, etc. take a huge amount of time. Given his extremely high level of competency, I leave Pierre to lead the technical team. That said, I take part in all the technical meetings, and it is vital for me to be on top of that side of things when liaising with users. 

Did you receive support in setting up your start-up?

O. Clatz:  Inria offered us invaluable support by giving us scientific freedom, human resources, funding and help with the technology transfer. We are also monitored by the Paca Est incubator in Sophia, which helps us with our projects and has also provided us with funding. In addition, we are taking business management courses. All this support does not necessarily provide a sure-fire recipe for success, but it does allow us to avoid pitfalls.

P. Fillard:  We have taken part in the annual barcamp organised by IT-Translation, which has also been following us for the last 2 or 3 years. As Olivier says, we took theChallenge Plus course at HEC business school, which was a real eye-opener for us. We are now going to take another course at EM Lyon, reserved for the competition winners (see opposite).

Where does Therapixel's technology come from?

P. Fillard:  It quickly became apparent that our initial idea - a neuroimaging technology – would barely have a market. However, the doctors we are in contact with told us about other concerns. Accessing a patient's images and data during an operation, with all the sterility problems that entails, emerged as a key issue. So we decided to developed a touchless image navigation system.

O. Clatz:  The conditions were right for it, with the emergence of gesture recognition technologies, which was driven by the video games industry: Microsoft launched Kinect at the end of 2010. That said, we don't use that technology anymore, as sensor technology develops very quickly. We choose the best and offer it along with our software. The rest (computers, screens, etc.) depends on what hardware the customer has.

Can you describe your product in a few words?

P. Fillard:  We have developed recognition and analysis of hand gestures made around twenty centimetres from the screen, to create a set of semantics. This part of the software is based on Olivier's research work. In addition, we are totally reconfiguring the visual interface for the image and data processing functions: controlling a computer with hand gestures is not like controlling it with a mouse! This is something that sets us apart from the competition.

O. Clatz:  Apart from this unique user-friendliness, the big plus point we offer is the fact that we integrate our product in the hospital's information system, which our competitors cannot do. They offer an add-on for standard software, which is designed to be used with a mouse and in a different radiological and diagnostic usage framework from that of surgical procedures. We are in full control of the design and development of our software, which allows us to adapt to specific needs and environments.

How is Therapixel getting along, and what are its prospects?

O. Clatz:  A prototype of the software has been undergoing testing for a year and a half at Nice University Hospital and the Centre Antoine Lacassagne (Nice). There is still work to be done, including the CE marking of our quality procedures, which is mandatory for medical devices. We are aiming to get the CE marking by the end of this year.

P. Fillard:  Therapixel was created in June by a team of researchers and engineers from Inria. Once we have the CE marking, we should be able to start selling the product at the very start of 2014. We are planning an investment round involving IT-Translation before the year is out.

Keywords: Therapixel Olivier Clatz Pierre Fillard Neuroimaging Start-up Gesture recognition Medical imaging