DRS. CHRISTY SHEEHY AND Zachary Helft plan to "change the face of neurodiagnostics by providing a window into neurological health through the eyes of patients." Here, they test their technology.
DRS. CHRISTY SHEEHY AND Zachary Helft plan to "change the face of neurodiagnostics by providing a window into neurological health through the eyes of patients." Here, they test their technology.
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Long before Dr. Zach Helft and Dr. Christy Sheehy co-founded a medical startup, both were students at Catholic schools in the Albany Diocese.

The two grew up an hour away from each other, though they didn’t know it. Dr. Helft is a native of Hoosick Falls who attended St. Mary’s Academy in Hoosick Falls and Hoosick Falls Central School. Dr. Sheehy, a native of Glenville, attended St. Helen’s School (now St. Kateri Tekakwitha) and Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons School, both in Schenectady.

More than a decade later, the pair are close friends and creators of C. Light Technologies. Through the medical startup, they’re working to better diagnose and assess the progress of neurological diseases using an advanced eye-motion tracking device called C. Light TSLO.

Because of the device’s accuracy, the two hope that C. Light TSLO will be able to detect signs of diseases like multiple sclerosis earlier than ever before.

“Whether it be coincidence or serendipity or whatever the case,” Dr. Helft said, meeting Dr. Sheehy felt fated.

Great start

Looking back, Dr. Sheehy said that her time in Catholic schools in the Diocese gave her the opportunity to work one-on-one with teachers. She was offered a college scholarship to the University of Rochester from ND-BG that helped to shape her future.

“Those things do make a difference,” she said.

Dr. Sheehy earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in optics, with a concentration in business administration, from the University of Rochester. In 2010, she was completing the master’s degree when she was laid off from her job. As she contemplated her next step, she realized that she wanted to continue doing research, so she applied to the Vision Science School at the University of California at Berkeley.  

Dr. Helft obtained his bachelor’s in cellular neuroscience from Colgate University in 2011 and went on to work for Regeneron Pharmaceuticals in Rensselaer. After a year, he decided to apply to the Vision Science School at UC Berkeley and, to his surprise, he was accepted.

In 2013, Dr. Helft went to visit UC Berkeley as a potential student. The Vision Science School paired him with a current student: Dr. Sheehy. The two bonded over having grown up in upstate New York.

Let’s try it

Dr. Helft showed a lot of interest in the work Dr. Sheehy was doing, and the two remained close friends throughout their time in school.

At the time, Dr. Sheehy was working on her doctoral thesis and designing the technology that would eventually create C. Light Technologies. As part of her thesis, she tried to find a low-cost way to extract high-definition images from the eye’s retina — a method of measuring neurological activity, since, she explained, scanning the back of the eye is really scanning the front of the brain.

She came up with C. Light TSLO, which can track eye motion 150 times more accurately than other pupil-tracking devices on the market.

Right now, C. Light TSLO is mostly used for monitoring multiple sclerosis, but it could also benefit patients with concussions, Parkinson’s disease, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and Alzheimer’s disease.

“Delayed MS diagnoses and unpredictable disease progression create poor patient outcomes and inefficiencies across the healthcare system,” note materials describing the technology.

Motivations

Dr. Sheehy said that a large part of her motivation behind working on C. Light TSLO came from seeing her aunt pass away from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Dr. Helft spoke of his grandmother, who also had Alzheimer’s, describing it as “losing someone while they’re still alive.”

In 2014, Dr. Sheehy was about to graduate when she approached Dr. Helft about partnering and turning her thesis into something real. The following year, C. Light Technologies was founded.

The co-founders obtained an office space in the Berkeley area and added four advisors and a chief business officer to their team. Dr. Helft noted that UC Berkeley was a popular place for startups; a number of programs existed at the college and in the area to support their goals.

The team joined Free Ventures, a student-run accelerator program designed to connect students with industry leaders, mentors and investors.

By the spring, they had received $100,000 from their first investor. Drs. Sheehy and Helft began applying for grants and were awarded an initial grant from the National Institute of Health (NIH) and another NIH grant this year.

Dr. Sheehy is currently finishing her post-doctoral research at UC San Francisco and working part-time on the startup. She has been able to test the C. Light TSLO device on more than 100 patients, proving that it can pick up specific patterns of motion in MS patients’ eyes that can’t be seen with lower-resolution devices.

“We’re catching all these patterns at super-fine resolution,” Dr. Sheehy said. “All these things have never been seen before.”

What’s next

Dr. Sheehy recently returned to the Diocese to be married; the ceremony was held in Saratoga. Dr. Helft, who attended, was able to make a trip home to Hoosick Falls to see a billboard honoring his accomplishments that was erected by the JLS Foundation, which provides scholarships to Hoosick Falls graduates and connect them with mentors and professionals in fields of study that interest the young people.

As a celebration for finishing his doctorate, Dr. Helft is currently on a cross-country motorcycle trip. In a month, he’ll return and focus all his energy on C. Light Technologies.

Dr. Helft said the team is currently working on obtaining federal approval for Dr. Sheehy’s device from the Food and Drug Administration, so they can begin selling it directly to physicians.

“I think we’re the best people for this,” said Dr. Sheehy. “We’re well poised to go forward and to be successful.”

(For more information, see www.clighttechnologies.com.)