Artem Shulga and his colleagues were devastated. The group of young physicists to whom he belonged had just lost a drone worth a few thousand dollars above the sarcophagus of the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine. The year was 2010, and Shulga was tasked with measuring the radiation level above the reactor, which proved to be high enough to cause the drone to crash.
What should have taken a few weeks, flying an octocopter using a fancy VR-like headset and a joystick, ended up in a year of painstaking measurements with a kite. Conventional technology as it was, the kite could only get to the required area when the wind was right, so the group often had to spend time just hanging around waiting. After that was finally over, Shulga, who achieved a bachelor's degree in applied physics before starting the project in Chernobyl, decided to go back to university.
“A friend of mine had moved to Groningen previously to follow a master's program, and he told me — it's nice here, why don't you apply as well?” Shulga said. “I considered staying in Ukraine, you know, that Chernobyl stuff was interesting. But then I thought — I can always come back to it. But now I already have my roots here in Groningen.”
Researcher turned entrepreneur
In the nine years since the drone incident, Shulga has been awarded a master's and then a PhD degree from the University of Groningen. Recently, he launched QDI systems, a startup that could revolutionise the medical X-ray industry.
The journey has been anything but easy, however.
“My English was very poor when I first arrived here, so over the first few months I attended the lectures, recorded them, and then sat at home in the evening with a dictionary translating what had been said,” Shulga remembers. “I was trying to get used to it. I was also watching some TV series in English, like Friends and The Big Bang Theory, so then it became easier.”
As part of a project during the master's programme, Prof. Maria Antonietta Loi introduced Shulga to the concept of quantum dots, tiny semiconducting nanocrystals with special optoelectronic properties that can change depending on their size. Excited by the wide range of potential applications of quantum dots, Shulga chose them as the focus of his PhD research and eventually came up with a way to use them in X-ray detectors for mammography.
Right place, right time
QDI's technology is based on the fact that quantum dots are sensitive to X-rays, which they convert into an electric charge. The TFT panel underneath the layer of quantum dots then generates the digital image by amplifying the charges within pixels and “translating” the charges into digital data.
This is not the first attempt at using quantum dots in X-ray detectors. Some years ago, the industrial giant Siemens also tried to work on a similar solution, but couldn't find a way to create a film of quantum dots that would be able to extract generated charges into the TFT panel. Over the past few years, however, researchers across the world have developed better methods to create such films using so-called quantum dot inks.
The main benefits of Shulga's quantum dot-based X-ray detector, compared to the current ones that are made of amorphous selenium, is that it's easier and cheaper to produce, while also offering better contrast. The quantum dots of lead sulphide are first made into a liquid solution and then sprayed onto the substrate.
“Amorphous selenium detectors are made in an extremely controlled environment,” Shulga explained. “If there is even a single atom contaminant on the TFT panel, the amorphous selenium layer could start crystallizing and doesn't work anymore. But what we are doing now is just spraying [the quantum dot solution], not even in a clean room, just under the fume hood, and it still works.”
The better contrast at lower radiation doses that can be achieved by using lead sulphide quantum dots could be particularly important for customers in the Nordics where the maximum radiation dose received by the patient during a mammography scan, is heavily regulated, Shulga added. Therefore, it would make it less dangerous for women to undergo mammography tests more often in order to diagnose tissue irregularities as early as possible.
The empowered founder
Shulga got the idea of launching QDI systems in the last year of his PhD, during a three-month internship at the University of Tokyo. After announcing the plan to his colleagues at the Zernike Institute for Advanced Materials, he received strong support from the institute and was introduced to Venture Lab, a business accelerator headquartered at the university campus.
At Venture Lab, Shulga went through a year-long development programme that taught him the basics of growing a startup from scratch. Currently, QDI systems is a team of four people working on the prototype of an X-ray sensor that can be used to demonstrate the innovative technology of the company.
As for financial support, Shulga is cautious not to raise VC funding too early in the life cycle of his startup to keep as much equity as possible. Together with his own savings that the founder had to live on throughout the first year after founding the company, Shulga has received €60,000 worth of grants from the NWO and SNN. This money has to be spent on feasibility studies and proof-of-concept demonstration.
After the prototype is ready, Shulga's ambition is to win licensing deals with major players in the mammography market to grow the company further. He's planning to stay connected with the alma mater but isn't inclined to pursue an academic career.
“I really like scientific research, but I also value this industrial approach we have at QDI,” he said. “Of course it's nice to publish a paper in a journal, but it feels even better when someone can apply your technology and use an actual product made out of it.”
For more information, please visit Artem's LinkedIn profile.
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