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Moving out of lab, Eye-Com eyes licensing

The technological innovations of Reno’s Eye-Com Corp. have been detailed in national business publications and praised on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

But now the 10-year-old company and its 12 employees face an equally big job building a business that can generate the revenues that will allow the innovations to keep coming.

Reno neurologist Dr. William Torch developed the company’s core technology, equipment that can track the movement of the eyes and use the movement to control other systems such as a motorized wheelchair, with research that begin in the mid-1990s.

He formed Eye-Com Corp., which remains privately held, in late 1997.

The technology, Torch says, has a variety of potential applications everything from allowing paralyzed people to activate a speech synthesizer by moving their eyes to helping pharmaceutical companies test new drugs.

But the challenge, says Ky Good, vice president of operations for Eye-Com, is sorting through the many potential applications to decide which have the greatest promise to begin generating cash in the next year or so.

“We have to focus on what we can do and generate some revenue,” says Good.

Two likely targets, he says, are the wheelchair market some 300,000 people who have suffered spinal cord injuries are potential users as well as developers of videogame systems who are looking for new bells and whistles.

Says Torch, “We’re making the eye the joystick of the future.” In either application, the key piece of gear is a set of electronic eye frames that measure and track eye blinking, eye gaze and the size of the user’s pupils.

A commercial prototype of the eyeglasses is scheduled for completion by mid-year, and Good says the company expects to begin generating revenue through licenses of its technology by early 2009.

The company has estimated that potential revenues from consumer-oriented markets alone could be $100 million a year, and a new board of advisors is helping set direction for the company’s efforts to license its technology.

Since its inception, Eye-Com Corp. has been funded by private investors along with a healthy dollop of grant dollars from the U.S. departments of Defense and Transportation. The federal agencies are interested in Eye-Com’s technology as a way of tracking drowsiness whether it’s among soldiers or truck drivers.

Those research collaborations, as well as work Eye-Com has completed with private-sector partners, are cited by Torch and Good as one of the company’s competitive advantages.

And they note that the company’s portfolio of intellectual property is well protected with six U.S. patents and copyrighted and trademarked software. Other patents are pending.

Among the company’s biggest boosters has been U.S. Sen. Harry Reid.

When Eye-Com became the first Nevada company to win the Small Business Innovation Research program’s Tibbetts Award in 2006, Reid took to the Senate floor to laud the company’s work as “an important technological advancement.”