Masters student wins Mitacs award for innovative ultrasound technology

- November 26, 2015

Hugo Vihvelin receives his Mitacs award from Treasury Board President (and Dal alumnus) the Honourable Scott Brison. (Mitacs photo)
Hugo Vihvelin receives his Mitacs award from Treasury Board President (and Dal alumnus) the Honourable Scott Brison. (Mitacs photo)

When you think “ultrasound,” what leaps to mind is probably a blurred image of a fetus in the mother’s womb.

But while imaging is the best-known application of ultrasonic technology — the use of high-frequency sound waves — it’s far from the only one. It’s shown to be effective in everything from healing minor injuries and promoting bone growth to even non-invasive methods of destroying tumors.

“We keep finding more and more applications for it,” explains Dal student Hugo Vihvelin. “It’s an exciting field to be working in because of that.”

Vihvelin defended his master’s thesis in Biomedical Engineering earlier this month, and this past Tuesday he took to the stage in Ottawa to receive the Master’s Award for Outstanding Innovation from Mitacs, a national non-profit that designs and delivers research and training programs across Canada.

The award recognized work Vihvelin completed during a Mitacs-funded internship earlier this year. He received a $15,000 internship grant from the organization to work with Daxsonics Ultrasound. The Halifax startup company, which consults on and develops high-frequency ultrasonic imaging technology, was co-founded by two researchers in Dal’s Department of Biomedical Engineering: Rob Adamson (Vihvelin’s supervisor) and Jeremy Brown.

New, more efficient electronics

Vihvelin’s research focuses on developing high-efficiency electronics for use in medical devices.

“If you think about something like an implanted hearing aid, a cochlear implant, the external device that you picture someone wearing is actually quite large,” he explains. “Dr. Adamson’s work is on figuring out a way to get that device size down. And where I came in was the development of high-efficiency electronics behind that, to support the overall function.”

By using a new transistor technology based on gallium nitride instead of silicon, Vihvelin was able to develop electronic circuits that are not only small but significantly more efficient. The question, then, was about where else this technology could be applied. That led him to his Mitacs-funded internship at Daxsonics, where he was able to translate his technology to be applied in the company’s work for an American ultrasound device provider.

“We started on this major project doing the diagnostic imaging portion,” explains Dr. Adamson. “What [Vihvelin] brought was the set of technologies we needed to make a pitch for the overhaul of the therapy systems. Without what he brought, we wouldn’t have been in a position to make that pitch. As a result, we took on a lot of new business, and these technologies have become a core competency of our company.”

From a degree to a career

Now, Vihvelin has been hired full-time by Daxsonics, working out of the company’s office in Dal’s Life Sciences Research Institute alongside its 13 other employees. He’s helping implement his electronics in ultrasound devices used to treat soft-tissue injuries — technology that is poised to be market-ready within a couple of years.

“Hugo’s story is a particularly nice one, because he’s been able to translate the research he’s done into another field, and one with a lot of commercial potential,” says Dr. Adamson.

“It’s very exciting,” adds Vihvelin. “The quicker we can develop it and get it on the market, the happier I’ll be, but obviously to get this far over the past couple of years has been great.”

He gives much of the credit for his success to Dr. Adamson and others in the Department of Biomedical Engineering.

“The people they have in place that are available to support students and train them are truly great. When I applied, I knew I was applying to a school that’s top tier. I can’t say enough good things about that department.”


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