Physician Innovator - An Interview with LumiThera's Dr. Robert Dotson

We first met the LumiThera team back in 2013. At the time, they were composed of a business plan, an impressive team of founders and compelling research, but not a lot of hardware to point at.

In this article, we sit down with Dr. Robert Dotson – the physician innovator for LumiThera – to talk about his journey to market, the hurdles he faced as a physician-turned-entrepreneur, and the vision he sees for the future of his company. 

How did you come to recognize the potential of photobiomodulation (PBM) as a therapy for eye disease?

About 15 years ago, I was looking for another revenue stream for my practice when I discovered a new (at the time) light-based therapy that was used, mainly, for anti-aging treatments on the skin.

The device contained LED panels that emitted a gentle flashing, yellow light. Supposedly, a 35-second treatment would help decrease the signs of aging skin and wrinkles.

This technology, and its promise to regenerate cell growth in skin, was the trigger that led me to look into the area of light-based therapy to treat eye disease. 

At Product Creation Studio, we’ve seen that the most successful companies are those with dynamic and complementary team members. How did you meet, and recognize the value of, Graham Merry and Clark Tedford?

In 2007, after unsuccessfully attempting to recruit academic programs to become my research partners, I was introduced to Dr. Graham Merry from Toronto, Canada.

Graham immediately understood the mechanics and science behind what I was trying to build and eventually, came on to be my partner. With his help, we started a formal study on age-related macular degeneration (AMD) because there was no good treatment for the disease.

During the study, we tried to find someone that was business-oriented to help us. We discovered a company in San Diego called PhotoThera that was attempting to commercialize a trans-cranial PBM device for the treatment of strokes.

As luck would have it, our contact with them was via their CSO, Dr. Clark Tedford, and though the company did not have the necessary resources to help us at the time, we kept in touch.

After five years of conducting our formal study, Graham presented our positive results in Australia and ran into Clark. PhotoThera no longer existed, but Clark was left with a team of engineers and a desire to move forward with the PBM technology. He learned that I had relocated to the PNW and lived within 10 miles of his house!

The three of us subsequently co-founded LumiThera in the spring of 2013. Clark brought his experience in pharmaceutical and device development, as well as knowledge about medical device start-ups to the team. Graham and I were fortunate to engage him as our CEO.

Clark understood the pharmaceutical-driven, product development path. He knew the studies that needed to be done in order to convince people that this product and technology were worth pursuing.  In addition, he was able to guide the company through WA State and Federal (NIH, NEI, etc.) grant processes to obtain much-needed funding - a huge help to the company and its investors!

What is one of the biggest difficulties you ran into while pursuing the commercialization of PBM as a treatment for eye disease?

I thought this technology and its treatment were so significant that if I just explained it to people they would "get it" too, but everyone thought I was a nut.

I did this song and dance for several years - traveling, making presentations, trying to get people on board - all while trying to run a private practice. Just as I was running out of steam and ready to give up, Graham fortuitously appeared and rejuvenated the process for me. In turn, Clark rejuvenated us both when we reconnected in late 2012.

You’ve got so many hurdles you’re up against with product development and design in the medical device space. There are healthcare regulatory issues, fundraising issues, etc. and you don’t get any of that training in medical school. I was flying blind for a long time.

What is the truly innovative feature in your device that you bring to the treatment of eye disease? 

We started with several predicate devices and determined that using multiple wavelengths had significant advantage over single wavelength devices.

We use three different wavelengths in our present device, each to affect a different part of the cell it targets, and these wavelengths work synergistically. This approach has proven effective with our early and on-going clinical trials.

Early on, you played the role of the Physician Innovator. What is your role at LumiThera today?

Today, my main role as the Chief Medical Officer is to oversee clinical studies. I also speak often on the technology and what we’re doing at LumiThera, as well as assist in our fundraising activities. 

Long term, I will remain the “visionary nut case” as we continue to work on some of the other applications we have going and pursue funding for those projects

Earlier you spoke about the feeling that medical school did not prepare you for the business world. What are your thoughts on incorporating business education into medical schools?  

While I was working with the University of Washington, I discovered that academia and mainstream medicine were less and less receptive to innovation. That’s a bad thing.

So, how do you fix that? I’m not sure, but I wish there was more encouragement in the schools and more healthcare thought leaders out there encouraging innovation and thinking outside the box in the medical space.

It’s frustrating because we make breakthroughs in medicine all the time, but really creative and innovative thinking has always been discouraged and it feels like it’s getting worse. I would love to see a course in medical school that encourages young physicians to dare to think outside the box when it comes to treatment and healthcare.

Why do you think innovation is missing in the medical field?

Right now, instead of innovation driving the medical world, it’s “evidence-based-medicine” that drives it. However, “evidence” can take on many different meanings to many different people. Currently, big pharma is the main driver of what qualifies as “evidence”. 

Evidence is expensive and it’s very controlled. A lot of the research out there is fraudulent, yet it’s the evidence we rely on.

The US spends the most money on healthcare in the world, yet our health as a population is equivalent to many third world countries.

Our system is flawed, our fixation on pharma-centric “evidence-based medicine” is fundamentally flawed. As a result, innovation is sidelined.

I would love to encourage more young people to pursue their ideas, to explore. No matter how crazy it sounds. Right now, innovation in the medical field boils down to individual passion and how much that person wants to go for it.

What advice do you have for other physician innovators out there as they weigh the option of developing new device solutions?

Don’t be discouraged by the naysayers. If you have an idea you’re passionate about, don’t give up on it.