ETH Spark Award for a promising method for breast cancer detection

24.03.2016 17:46

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This week the annual award ceremony for the Spark Award was held at ETH Zurich. The prize, which recognises the most promising invention at ETH Zurich registered for a patent in 2015, went to Sergio Sanabria and Orçun Göksel. They have developed a hand-held ultrasound imaging of speed-of-sound for breast examination.

About 200 inventions were made at ETH Zurich last year. Around 100 are protected by patents. The best five of those 100 were selected as finalists for the fifth edition of the Spark Award. The five projects demonstrated the broad range of research at the ETH. One team has developed a sensor for measuring temperatures and thermal flows under extreme conditions. The scientists use it to monitor their plasma drilling processes, which can be applied for deep geothermal drilling. Another project was a new 3D microprinting process which is already used by the ETH spinoff Cytosurge. And of course there were two projects from the life sciences field including the winner.

The winning project is described in an article on the ETH website: The novel ultrasonic measurement can be used to diagnose various tissue changes, in particular to detect tumours. Until now, many tumours could not be seen in an ultrasound. Instead of the standard practice of measuring the backscattering of sound, the new method measures the time taken by an ultrasound wave: the stiffer the tissue, which is the case with tumours, the faster the sound wave passes through the tissue. To do this, the researchers developed their own probe head together with an image processing programme. Patient trials are currently being carried out in collaboration with University Hospital Zurich.If all goes as hoped, the two researchers will either found a start-up or search for a partner to license the technology.

"The new ultrasound method from inventors Göksel and Sanabria emerged as the clear winner. The technology stands out thanks to its potential for quick acceptance and application in the medical market," said Detlef Günther, ETH Vice President Research and Corporate Relations, in his speech before some 200 guests in the Audi Max. "This award is a turning point for us and a wonderful recognition of a year and a half of intensive research," said the delighted Orçun Göksel, Professor at the Computer Vision Laboratory. "It demonstrates the applicability of our method," added Sergio Sanabria, a scientist in Göksel's group.

Videos of the five finalists have been published on the ETH website.

It is not unlikely that the two scientists start a business. In his talk at the event Silvio Bonaccio pointed out the first project awarded with a Spark award back in 2012 led to the start of the spinoff Glycemicon. And the winner from 2015 obtained a Pioneer Fellowship at ETH to develop his project into a start-up. Bonaccio show also how many support programmes and institutions for young entrepreneurs have been created over the last ten years.

In addition to the award ceremony Manuel Aschwanden, CEO of the ETH spinoff Optotune, shared his experiences and his learnings as entrepreneur. His most surprising recommendation: “As an entrepreneur you should enjoy the downs of your startup because you will learn a lot from them.”


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