Startup sees GR as future molecular imaging hub


Anthony Chang and Tracy Sianta will expand Rethink Imaging’s headquarters in downtown Grand Rapids to be close to the region’s major health systems. Photo by Michael Buck

Anthony Chang doesn’t see Rethink Imaging as a startup — he envisions it as a company that could kick-start Grand Rapids as a destination for specialized medical care.

When Chang was recruited to build the molecular imaging program at the Van Andel Research Institute in 2010, he was blown away by Grand Rapids’ advances in health care, particularly the Medical Mile. That impression never left him, and fueled by the desire to see Grand Rapids become the premier destination for molecular imaging, he decided to branch out on his own.

“Molecular imaging is available in the U.S., but the majority is only at prestigious universities, and most of the technology is in clinical trials, and that’s it,” Chang said. “On the other hand, in Europe, they’re way ahead of us. A lot of the things we just started clinical trials for have been part of routine procedures there for some time. That’s why we’re so eager to bring it to the U.S., and why it’s an opportunity to make Grand Rapids rise above the rest of the nation.”

There is a number of different imaging modalities used in molecular imaging, which can be particularly useful in detecting cancerous tumors at the molecular level, in the earliest stage of development. Rethink Imaging will use positron emission tomography (PET), a nuclear medicine approach to imaging that produces a 3-D image of the body processes.

A patient is injected with a tracer that is designed to look for specific molecules or abnormal body processes. The tracers will circulate through the body until it finds what it is looking for, and it will latch on, acting as a homing beacon when viewing the resulting image. Chang said molecular imaging can catch a tumor as small as 2 millimeters in diameter and is useful in tracking its growth or reduction once treatment starts.

“Traditionally, when you try to decide if something is working or not, we’ll administer this therapy and tell you to come back in six months, and we’ll see how you’re doing,” Chang said. “And if it’s not working, you wasted six months of time and six months of drugs. Now, we can actually see how it works after the first treatment because even if the tumor hasn’t started to shrink yet, you can see the molecular changes going on.

“Overall, we can make an earlier and more efficient diagnosis and provide more efficient treatment.”

Chang said he sees Rethink Imaging’s role in the fight against cancer and neurological diseases as similar to the Central Intelligence Agency. He said they can provide the critical information that allows the soldiers and generals — physicians, in this sense — to win the war on the front lines.

In addition to the new tracers, Chang is planning to offer unique medical technologies like radiation pharmacies and image analysis tools that will attempt to fuel the region’s medical ecosystem.

“We want to build this healthy imaging ecosystem that leads to people coming to Grand Rapids to build a software company, or a chemistry company, other tracer companies or businesses built around this industry,” he said.

Chang said Rethink Imaging is targeting a May or June launch, when the first round of funding is completed. With a number of local investors and a national level investor group expressing interest, Chang said Rethink Imaging is on its way to securing the tens of millions of dollars it will need to get started.

“We’re not like your traditional startup, where we say we have this milestone, and once we get that money, we can open the doors,” Chang said. “The starting capital is very, very high, so we have to go in stages before we get all the way there.”

Specifically, Rethink Imaging is looking for investors that aren’t just interested in the company but are more interested in investing in Chang’s vision of turning Grand Rapids into a hub for molecular imaging.

“We’re not just looking for money, because we see this as a community project bringing the Grand Rapids medical industry to the next level,” he said. “We’re looking for people who understand our region and are willing to be patient working with us to build a solid foundation, so we can actually be higher and faster at the end of the year.”

When Rethink Imaging gets to its next stage, the company will amp up the recruiting efforts and begin the process of building the region’s first medical cyclotron and radiopharmacy facility. Currently, Rethink Imaging consists of three employees, including CEO Chang and COO Tracy Sianta. After the first phase, Rethink Imaging will bring that number up to 10 or 15 employees, and Chang is determined to bring the top molecular imaging experts from around the country.

Chang said Rethink Imaging could have started anywhere, but his reasons for building around Grand Rapids are two-fold — first, the city is equipped with the resources and infrastructure to make it a success. Secondly, he just loves the area.

Currently, Rethink Imaging is looking for a location downtown to build out its headquarters. The downtown location is crucial — while some tracers have an extended shelf life, others have a shelf life of just five to 10 minutes, and if they aren’t quickly transported into the hands of partner hospitals, will be rendered useless.

While Rethink Imaging hasn’t officially partnered with any hospitals, Sianta said she’s been in discussions with every health system in the region, and Chang’s hope is Rethink Imaging will be able to work with institutions in a 100-mile radius.

“Anthony has an incredible vision that’s very complex, there’s a lot of moving parts, and we need to simplify and get it into the hospitals,” Sianta said. “I’m working with the hospitals getting to their purchasing systems and working with the supply chain, doing all those things that can make this a reality.”

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