Rolland portrait photo

[Image: Courtesy of Jannick Rolland]

OSA Fellow Jannick Rolland is the Brian J. Thompson Professor of Optical Engineering at the University of Rochester, USA, as well as the CTO and co-founder of the imaging startup LighTopTech. Rolland spoke with OPN about how these two roles pair perfectly together—allowing her to innovate and then license and share these innovations with the wider world.

To read more about entrepreneurship as a career path and Rolland’s journey, check out “Pursuing an Entrepreneurial Vision,” OPN, October 2019.

Tell me a little about your company, LighTopTech. What was your motivation to start it?

LighTopTech was founded in 2013. We sell a new type of microscope—GDOCM 4D—that does volumetric imaging with a resolution of 2 μm throughout the 3-D volume and through a depth up to of 2 mm in the current implementation, including in vivo. The microscope can image cells anywhere in the 3-D volume. One unique capability of the instrument is the advanced software/hardware combination that enables the estimation of parameters at the nanometer scale.

My motivation to launch LighTopTech was to enable the core technology for optical biopsy to be broadly disseminated out of the research laboratory. The technology was invented and prototyped from research conducted in my lab, early on at the University of Central Florida and since 2009 at the University of Rochester.

The launch of LighTopTech effectively occurred right after OSA member Cristina Canavesi (my graduate student at the time) and I completed the National Science Foundation (NSF) I-Corps training program for entrepreneurship, which inspired us deeply to engage in that journey.

What are some of the challenges you faced with starting LighTopTech?

A first challenge was to not only engineer the hardware for a product but also to develop all the associated software, which is an ongoing process as each application requires unique software analysis. In parallel, we had to prioritize our first commercial application.

Another challenge early on was to strategize our hiring so everything could be sustainable. Running a startup is quite complex—resources may be relatively limited, but there is a need to accomplish a lot, fast, under these limited resources. It is critical to hire the very best people.

We did have one major disappointment along the way—the unsuccessful outcome of the Phase II Luminate startup accelerator, which took place in 2018 in LighTopTech’s hometown of Rochester, N.Y. This experience was a double-edged sword—hurtful but motivating. Naturally, our focus immediately went back to our creative journey and the impact that LighTopTech will have, which is our guiding star.

Scatterings image

[Image: Courtesy of Jannick Rolland]

What has been your experience with keeping one foot in academia while also leading a company?

I find the combination of my appointment in academia while working as CTO for LighTopTech to be a perfect one for me. With this situation, we are better positioned at LighTopTech to strategize about both the short and long term.

In academia, I focus on continuous innovation, and some of the associated intellectual property created is licensed to LighTopTech. Academia is the best place for that component of innovation given the high risk and long processes involved. At LighTopTech, I help build a diverse, strong team, and I focus on guiding emerging technology integration that will undoubtedly contribute to making a better world.

As a professor, my work is enhanced from my work with LighTopTech in how I think of research within the context of the highest possible impact. It is all about partnerships, and the University of Rochester and LighTopTech mutually understand that strong partnerships will enable the future. I would not do it any other way.

LighTopTech was founded by women. In your opinion, why is female entrepreneurship important in today’s climate?

It should be more about what we do than about our gender. Unfortunately, it is a very complex equation for women, and today there is still an unconscious bias against women in the entrepreneurial world. We indicate the fact that LighTopTech is “women-owned” because we want to mentor other women that may engage in entrepreneurship. Mentoring women in STEM will play a critical role in the emergence of a more diverse, and thus stronger, entrepreneurial world.

In addition to my work at Rochester and at LighTopTech, I also mentor and serve on the executive board of WiSTEE Connect, which connects women in science, technology, engineering and entrepreneurship. I strongly believe in an equal-opportunity world for all. 

What is the most essential piece of advice that you would give someone interested in starting an optics and photonics business?

I think the underlying reason—the passion that makes someone start a company—has to be strong to navigate the challenges of running a startup. At LighTopTech, the vision of the technology’s impact is what propels us steadily into the storm. Surround yourself with the right team, and the ride will be exhilarating.