Q & A with Alumnus David Cuccia '03, '06
Aug. 10, 2017 - David Cuccia’s company, Modulated Imaging, Inc., traces its roots back to his UC Irvine undergraduate days. Cuccia ’03, ’06 was a physics major when he began developing the novel tissue-imaging technology known as spatial frequency domain imaging (SFDI). He went on to earn both a master’s and a doctorate in biomedical engineering at UCI, and the technology led to four patents and new applications in research, medicine and industry. Cuccia is now the CEO and CTO of Modulated Imaging, headquartered in Irvine. In 2015, the Samueli School inducted him into its inaugural Hall of Fame.
Why is SFDI unique?
SFDI enables us to separately measure light absorption and light-scattering effects in human tissue. Compared to other approaches, we can capture information from infrared light deeper into the tissue (up to 1 cm or so) and over a larger area, and it requires relatively simple, low-cost hardware to implement. Together, these advances make it possible to transform consumer-grade photography and video hardware into quantitative diagnostic imaging and monitoring devices that can guide medical interventions and anticipate injuries before the human eye can see them.
How can patients benefit?
SFDI can help diabetic patients avoid complications, such as ulcers and amputations, and it can catch changes in blood perfusion early so physicians can intervene sooner. Other promising applications include helping hospitals identify pressure-induced lesions that could become bedsores, helping ER doctors determine the severity of burn wounds, enhancing surgical guidance and providing post-operative monitoring.
You’ve secured over $13 million in funding and seven patents, you’ve won awards, you’ve moved the company twice to larger headquarters. To what do you attribute your success?
I'm very proud of these accomplishments, and it's a testament to the team's perseverance and to the strong collaborations we’ve had with scientists and business communities in and around UCI. Fred Ayers, Dr. Amaan Mazhar, and Pierre Khoury stayed with the company from the very early incubation days and have been the foundation of all we've built. Richard Oberreiter, our COO, has more recently helped us grow from a team of engineers to a full-fledged FDA-cleared medical device company. And the local startup community in Orange County has been incredibly supportive. To summarize, I’d say it’s important to stick with it, get good advice, and then actually take that advice.
What is your biggest challenge as a small business owner?
Deciding how to invest your time and finite resources. Things always take more time, energy and resources than I estimate, so it’s critical to decide what work is truly important and not get distracted. As a technophile, I naturally feel drawn to work on the next technological solution to a problem, but it’s often resisting this urge and actively deciding what not to work on that is the most important for reaching my goals.
What is next for Modulated Imaging?
Our first medical device, Ox-Imager CS, was cleared by the FDA in December 2016. Since then, we've been hard at work developing a smaller, lower-cost device, designed to be deployed at primary care clinics. Stay tuned!
What advice would you give today’s entrepreneurial students?
Make sure to get involved in something you're passionate about; this will help you weather the natural ups and downs. Broaden your experiences. If you've been mostly technical, challenge yourself to go to local business events (often free for students) and learn the language of startups. Read the books and blogs of Steve Blank, Eric Reis, Fred Wilson, Brad Feld and Mark Suster.
Also, it’s so important to build trust within your company. I've been so lucky to work with such great people at Modulated Imaging, and we're strong because of the trust we have in each other. Don’t "jump in" too quickly. My strongest ties have all started with some sort of "dating period." Where possible, try to bring in a consultant, work with a researcher, or develop a mentor first, before tying the knot in a business relationship.
Who was your most important UCI mentor?
Professor Bruce Tromberg has been such a constant source of inspiration and encouragement. His belief and investments in me are what gave me confidence in myself, as well as the resources I needed to develop my career as a scientist and entrepreneur. I couldn't have succeeded without the support of my other mentors, professor Tony Durkin and Dr. Frederic Bevilacqua. And, I never would have met Tromberg without my chemistry teacher, professor Mare Taagapera, who took the time to pick me out from the crowd in her introductory course and encouraged me to talk to Bruce [Tromberg].
As a student, what was toughest?
The hardest part of school was probably taking challenging courses outside my specialty, such as the Humanities Core course as an undergraduate. But these were in some ways the most important; the rigorous instruction on how to translate one's critical thinking into persuasive communication prepared me for scientific paper and grant writing.
Your feelings about being in the Samueli School Hall of Fame?
This was an incredible honor, particularly because of how young the BME department is. There are so many impressive graduates, and I am so grateful to the committee for the recognition.
I met my wife, Sara Robinson, as an undergrad the first day of Freshman Welcome Week. Sara was an English major. She also has an MFA in creative writing from UCI, and is a brilliant writer and instructor. As I type this, we're celebrating our 11th anniversary in our favorite hangout, San Francisco.
My latest passion is making beer at home. Right now in my fridge I have a home-brewed American cream ale, a blood orange IPA, a French saison, and an oak-and-bourbon-infused Belgian tripel.
Back in high school, when I chose to attend UCI I had no idea that it would be such a big part of my life and career. It’s exciting to see all the advances UCI continues to make, and I'm so proud to be an Anteater. Zot! Zot! Zot!
-Anna Lynn Spitzer