Nikon makes strategic investment in Thiel-backed cheap, safe handheld X-ray startup

Nikon has made an undisclosed investment in hand-held X-ray tech company Tribogenics. The focus right now is to use the technology for industrial uses, but medical applications are also on the horizon. A sub-$10K hand-held, medical X-ray machine would have obvious and widespread implications, particularly in the developing world where there's little existing medical imaging infrastructure.

This could offer yet another opportunity for emerging economies to leapfrog more economically advanced nations on the healthcare front as handheld and smartphone-related tech enables cheap, high quality medical imaging and diagnostics. Nikon is looking to move more into med tech and last year made a splashy $400 million purchase of optical imaging player Optos. Camera players like Nikon and Canon are interested in med tech as a means to stem waning revenues.

The underlying technology for Los-Angeles-based Tribogenics' triboluminescence based X-ray technology originally came from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). It was used to develop Tribogenics' Watson XRF hand-held analyzer that's prices at just under $10,000. The technology was originally developed by DARPA. Tribogenics was founded in 2011 and is backed by prominent tech investor Peter Thiel's Founders Fund.

The initial target market that the partners will pursue is the industrial non-destructive testing market that uses the technology to positively identify the composition of metals and alloys for their proper re-use. But the pair plan to also expand into the medical field, not just with handheld analyzers but also potentially with cabinet type X-ray and CT products. A safe, cheap handheld X-ray or CT machine could enable point-of-care, or eventually even at-home imaging.

The device works by using triboluminescence, the generation of a charge imbalance through friction, to create high voltage. The company likens it in safety and convenience to a cordless, rechargeable power tool. Reducing radiation exposure from X-rays for patients and healthcare workers is a top priority for the FDA.

"What I had realized is that the entire X-ray industry, whether it's medical equipment or XRF equipment, all runs on a technology that essentially dates back to the late 1800s. Our electronics have been innovated through transistors and microchips but the X-ray industry really never evolved since it was first observed," said Tribogenics co-founder and CEO Dale Fox in a November interview.

"DARPA said let's find a better way to do this. They started funding research at national laboratories and universities across the United States. One of those projects was at UCLA here in Los Angeles. In the physics department, those physicists made a significant breakthrough, one that was actually published on the cover of Nature Magazine in October of 2008," he continued.

"What they discovered is that the principle we think of as static electricity is actually called tribocharging. It involves charges moving between various surfaces, basic material science. They realized that this phenomena is much more powerful than we previously thought, and if harvested correctly, could be used to make X-rays," summed up Fox.

- here is the announcement