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2004 World Technology Awards Winners & Finalists

Dr. Alan Chow and Mr. Vincent Chow

Please describe the work that you are doing that you consider to be the most innovative and of the greatest likely long-term significance.

Optobionics Corproration’s Artificial Silicon Retina™ microchip is an investigational device designed to restore vision to patients afflicted with retinitis pigmentosa, for which there is no present treatment, therapy or cure. Retinitis pigmentosa afflicts approximately 1.5 million people worldwide, many of them children and young adults.

The Artificial Silicon Retina microchip is self-contained and powered entirely by light entering the eye, without batteries or other ancillary devices. Only 2 millimeters in diameter and less than the thickness of a human hair, it contains approximately 5,000 solar cells or “microphotodiodes.” When the microchip is surgically implanted underneath the retina, these microphotodiodes convert light into an electrical signal similar to that normally produced by the retina’s own photoreceptor cells. This signal, in turn, stimulates the remaining functional cells, which process it and send it via the optic nerve to the brain.

The Artificial Silicon Retina microchip’s development reflects balancing of sophisticated scientific, manufacturing and legal issues on the part of Optobionics’ founding brothers, Dr. Alan Chow and Vincent Chow. Operating at frontiers of both technology and medicine, the brothers conceived of the possibility of a retinal prosthesis in the late 1980s and, in a protracted effort, developed and tested both (1) devices and (2) surgical techniques for implanting them in the eye while concurrently filing appropriate patents. For a decade, the brothers absorbed the financial risk by funding these combined efforts from their own resources. They succeeded in advancing the design without encountering any engineering dead ends. Only in anticipation of gaining approval from the US government authority to begin clinical trials in human patients did it become necessary to secure capital from outside sources. Approval to proceed with clinical trials in humans was granted in late 1999. Beginning in June 2000, patients were implanted with the device to determine its safety and feasibility—a total of ten through June 2003. All ten patients have reported improved visual function and no inflammation or infection has been observed. The advance prospect of these results inspired enthusiastic support from investors and has led to collaboration with the government authority, for which the device also represents a frontier.

The company’s growth in research has also spawned a major, continuing effort to defend its existing patents and file new ones, nationally and internationally. At this time, the company’s unbroken record of success in patent protection, combined with an inability of other researchers to duplicate the company’s technology, has resulted in a competitive edge. Continued improvement to existing microchip designs, innovation of new designs and vigorous intellectual property defense will be the company’s primary means of protecting this competitive advantage as it looks forward to leveraging its experience via improved product design and expanded clinical applications.

Optobionics Corporation is an Illinois corporation at the forefront of research directed toward developing a retinal prosthesis for restoring vision to patients afflicted with retinal degenerative disease conditions—such as retinitis pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration—that lead to blindness and for which there is no present treatment, therapy or cure.

Brief Biography

Alan Chow, MD, co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of Optobionics Corporation, is a pediatric ophthalmologist who led development of the company’s device, led four successful rounds of financing and led surgical teams in implanting the company’s device in its initial human clinical trials. Dr. Chow received his BA in biology from the University of Chicago and his MD from Loyola University. He completed internships in pediatrics at Cincinnati Children’s/GSH and in general surgery at Loyola where he also completed his ophthalmology residency. Dr. Chow was a Heed Fellow in pediatric ophthalmology at the Children’s Hospital National Medical Center and a Knapp Fellow in ophthalmic genetics at the Wilmer Eye Institute, Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Chow has received grants and awards relating to his scientific and business activities from NASA, the Westinghouse Foundation, National Science Foundation, NIH and the SBA. In 1996 he received the Chicago Inventor of the Year along with his brother Vincent for their work in developing the Artificial Silicon Retinal Prosthesis, and in 2000, the Tibbetts Award from the Small Business Innovation Research Program. In 2002, he and his brother received RP International’s Vision Award, and in 2003, an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award in the Chicago area. Dr. Chow is a Visiting Associate Professor at the University of Illinois Eye Center at Chicago and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Tulane University Eye Center. He is a frequent national and international lecturer and is the author of numerous articles, book chapters and patents. He is also a reviewer for a number of peer reviewed journals and is a spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

Vincent Chow, co-founder and Vice President of Research and Development of Optobionics Corporation, is an electrical engineer with 25 years experience in the semiconductor industry. He coordinates the efforts of the company’s growing engineering staff at two locations. From 1994 to the present Mr. Chow has been President of Vega Technology and Systems, an engineering consulting firm for optical sensing products and ASIC applications. From 1989 to 1994, Mr. Chow was Director of Research and Development at MDA Scientific. From 1985 to 1989, he served as Director of Technical Operations at Autotech Corporation. Mr. Chow has also been Director of Operations at Telco Systems and Manager of Reliability Development at AT&T Bell Labs/Teletype. Mr. Chow is a named inventor on 11 patents, and in 1996 received the Chicago Inventor of the Year Award with his brother Alan for their work in developing the Artificial Silicon Retina Microchip. In 2002, he and his brother also received RP International’s Vision Award, and in 2003, an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award in the Chicago area. Mr. Chow received his B.S. in Electrical Engineering fro the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1971.