Your skin’s story! By Guy Griml
In December 2005, Dr. Yosef Segman flew to the United States for a crucial meeting that would determine the fate of his startup, Cnoga.
Segman, 49, had applied to conduct trials involving a new technology that he had developed for measuring physiological parameters via digital imaging of skin color changes. Sound like science fiction? How on earth could a video camera be used to diagnose illnesses?
Texas Instruments (TI), the company to which Segman had applied, also found this concept hard to accept. Even so, with typical American politeness, TI executives invited Segman to show them his ideas.
” When they saw a few subjects’ pulse and blood pressure being measured,” recalls Segman, “they invited us for another meeting.”
That meeting was held at an annual developers’ conference, and TI invited 30 people of different races to test Segman’s camera. At first the device measured the subjects’ blood sugar – with an impressively high level of correlation to previously measured physiological parameters that were, of course, not shown to Segman. The device then measured other parameters, again with a high level of correlation.
TI executives were pleased with these results, and have now signed a cooperation agreement with Cnoga for a joint project that will receive $3 million in funding from the Binational Industrial Research and Development (BIRD) Foundation.
The project will integrate Cnoga’s software code and algorithms in a processor developed by TI for cellular telephones equipped with digital video cameras. The goal is to produce cell phones that can also function as medical diagnostics devices, for measuring blood oxygen level, pulse, blood pressure and more.
This would virtually turn the cell phone into a personal medical “practitioner” for every user. Instead of waiting in line at a doctor’s office, everyone could obtain initial physiological parameters regarding personal health without leaving home. If a person has eaten too much junk food, for example, digital photos taken with a cell phone equipped with Cnoga’s software and a TI chip will show the high acidity level in the body, and thereby warn the person to eat more healthful foods.
Cnoga, founded in 2004, is not Segman’s first startup. Veteran entrepreneurs will remember him as the founder of Oplus, which he sold to Intel for $100 million two years ago. If anyone had told Segman 40 years ago that he would become a professor at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, he would probably have laughed in disbelief. Segman was quite a troublemaker at school and was expelled from ninth grade. The only school that would accept him afterward was the comprehensive high school in Ramle, where he studied automotive mechanics. When he was conscripted to the Israel Defense Forces, Segman served in the Air Force’s ultra-elite search and rescue unit 669.
At the age of 23, Segman decided he really wanted to go to university, but lacked the requisite matriculation certificate. He enrolled in the most demanding track of a university preparatory course – and failed miserably.
“I’m making up for what I missed not only in high school, but also in elementary school,” he told his teachers, and asked them give him a chance to prove himself.
Two semesters later he achieved the highest grades in the math program, and was subsequently accepted to the Technion’s mathematics and computer science department. He completed his bachelor’s degree and went on to study applied science at Harvard University. When he returned from Harvard, he realized he had had enough of academia.
“I decided to found a startup,” relates Segman, who chose the name Oplus for it. The company began to raise funds, while at the same time increasing revenues. In 2002 Segman persuaded a Chinese government-owned holding company to build a factory in China using Oplus components. He spent two years in China and returned to Israel when differences of opinion developed between himself and the company’s investors. He then founded Cnoga.
. “I examined thousands of photos of people with different skin tones,” he explains. “I wondered if a certain skin color could indicate illness. Could a certain skin tone, for example, be influenced by liver problems? I began to understand the relationships between skin colors that indicate normal health or illness. I then researched the tiny changes in skin tones that occur in fractions of a second, and gave each color change a different value.”
Segman found that when people are tense, their skin tone changes. At first he thought his discoveries could help the security industry – to identify tense and therefore perhaps suspicious travelers in airports – but in the end he decided that more people could benefit from computerized diagnostic devices in the medical industry
“I wanted to put the technology into as many devices worldwide as possible, to join forces with a company whose microchips are in cell phones, video cameras and GPS devices,” he explains. The first trials of Cnoga’s technology will soon be tested at Bnei Zion Hospital in Haifa, supervised by Prof. Eli Zuckerman.