Electrical engineer envisions better future

Dec 3, 2014

FOR many scientists, commercializing their research findings or intellectual property is a challenge. So it was for 40-year-old Singaporean Li Bing Keong, who holds a PhD in electrical engineering from the University of Queensland in Australia.

Li has published 51 international journal and conference papers about magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and owns five related World Intellectual Property Organization patents, but had not found any chance to commercialize them as he had worked only at the university since his graduation in 2006.

“I had been considering establishing my own business to commercialize my research findings for years, but had not found a suitable opportunity to do so,” Li told Shanghai Daily.

But he solved the problem last year in Kunshan, Jiangsu Province, where his Chinese schoolmate Zhao Huawei had established Jiangsu Magspin Instrument Co Ltd in 2012. Zhao invited Li to join the company as he knew him and his talents well.

Li visited Magspin and found it inspiring as it was in Kunshan’s modern high-tech zone, which is less than one hour’s drive from Shanghai. The local government had provided a large workshop and financial support for the company. So he quit his job at the University of Queensland as a research officer and arrived in Kunshan in April 2013. His girlfriend also quit her job in Australia to accompany him.

Li signed a five-year contract with Magspin as its director of research and development, while the company built him a research platform with 5 million yuan (814,351) and provided three assistants.

Familiar with the market of medical devices, both Li and Zhao believe the MRI machines currently used by major hospitals are too expensive for all medical institutes to afford. They also believe most existing machines may cause discomfort to tall and fat people or those who have claustrophobia as they require patients to lie in a narrow space.

They envision great market potential for smaller open MRI systems dedicated to limbs. After several months of design and research, Magspin successfully developed its Dedicated Open MSK MRI system earlier this year.

The system includes a sofa and a scanning machine. When a patient sits on the sofa, its moving parts can raise his or her arms or legs in to phased array radio frequency coils and take the scan as easy as if taking a patient’s blood pressure. It doesn’t cause any discomfort and makes almost no noise.

The MSK MRI system, planned to be priced around US$300,000, is still going through FDA and CE certification procedures, but is expected to be approved in May 2015. Magspin already has 20 intended orders after it showed its models at the Radiological Society of North America conference in Chicago last year.

“Once we can officially start selling the machines, I believe revenue will be at least 40 million yuan next year. The figure is expected to reach 60 million yuan in 2016 and the company should become eligible to apply for an initial public offering,” Li said.

Li also noticed that when babies need to take an MRI scan, they have to use the same machines as adults. But the enclosed space and the noise of the machine often frighten young children.

Therefore, Li also designed an MRI system for infants. It’s like a small crib with two round side plates and a transparent cover. It allows babies to see medical staff and their parents during the scan, thus they may feel more comfortable and relaxed. Li is now sourcing material for the side plates, but he will display a model at this year’s RSNA conference.

“It is important to start research and development as early as possible and become the first few who have this new technology to take a leading position in the market,” he said.

Li has invited Scimedix Medical Inc Korea and the Suzhou Institute of Biomedical Engineering and Technology to cooperate.

“My objective is to build a high quality 0.5T Whole Body Open Superconducting MRI system with advance medical image diagnostic software at an affordable price,” Li said. “If all hospitals are able to have their own MRI systems, it will help improve the health care system in China.”

The expected net profit of each such system will be US$200,000 with projected annual sales of around 100 units, which will create more than 20 million yuan in tax revenue for the government, he said.

In order to achieve the goal as soon as possible, Li worked overtime with his team. Even when he was diagnosed with a spinal curve in October, which caused great pain in his waist and his legs, he refused to have a surgery. Instead, he took a painkilling injection and returned to work.

“Our company is at a crucial phase now and I don’t want to waste my previous efforts and the good environment here,” he said.

Li said he had been worried about buying the needed machine components as he used to buy them from America when he was in Australia. But he was surprised to find cheaper alternatives in Suzhou.

“I was prejudiced and doubted the quality of Chinese products. But after repeated tests, I found they are good enough and cost 30 to 50 percent less than American parts,” Li said.

For example, an American capacitor from one US-based company costs US$3, but an alternative made in Suzhou sells for only US$1.70.

Li also likes that the supplier is in the city so if there are any problems they can find a resolution quickly.

Li has also received better support from the local government than he expected.

On his arrival, the company and the Kunshan government provided an apartment, enabling him to devote himself to his work immediately without any distractions.

He was also awarded the title “Honorary Citizen of Kunshan” and included in Kunshan’s Innovative Talents Project, which was launched by the city government six years ago to attract high-tech talents by providing up to 1 million yuan in financial aid and other support.

The company also helped him apply for the national Thousand Talents Program that was launched in 2008 by the central government to attract at least 2,000 foreign scientists to China.

If his application is approved, he will receive another 1 million yuan in subsidies and a long-term visa, as well as other benefits.

About the Column

Suzhou Face

This series focuses on individuals who have lived in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province for a while and have a tale that’s worth telling. Age, gender, nationality and race are all unimportant in comparison with what adventures the subject has been up to, the experiences they can recount.

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