This article was originally published in the University of Northern Iowa‘s UNIToday Winter 2014 Edition. It is being shared on our website by permission.
Bill Harwood admits it’s a strange story. Why would a professor of chemistry launch a start-up business that combines neuroscience, psychology, statistics and computer science?
Harwood arrived at UNI in 2006 fascinated with the groundbreaking new information gleaned from eye-tracking machines. Initially interested in studying how people learned – or didn’t learn – chemistry through eye movement, he quickly realized the process had larger potential.
Eye tracking uses state-of-the-art technology to interpret eye movements as an expression of brain function, allowing the measurements of what people look at, for how long and the route their eye gaze takes.
“We can test and track anything visual,” Harwood said. “Are you getting the most out of your website? Is it confusing? We can test that. Your print ads, TV ads, mailers, Google ads – do people see them? Do they respond more to some images than others? It’s all quantifiable.”
Combining forces with Mike Whitson, B.A. ’11, he launch iTracking Research as a start-up company in UNI’s Innovation Incubator. They created a university-industry partnership, using the university’s two eye-tracking machines, which the company leases as needed. Faculty in departments across the university also have access to the innovative research method, plus the expertise of the company to help them get started. Recently, the company donated facial recognition software to UNI that adds the ability to measure emotional response to their arsenal of tools.
“So now, in addition to what you see and respond to, we can measure you emotional response to it,” said Harwood. “It’s amazing – the potential is very exciting!”
“Today, most companies simply have never heard of and have a difficult time understanding our technologies and how they can benefit from them,” said Whitson, vice president and co-founder. “We are just starting to gain traction to reach more companies and help them design better products and get great results.”
“Every projects is a little different,” said Harwood. “That’s a lot of fun. The fact that it makes a difference is what I like best. We’re helping people do a better job communicating.”
Inspired by Whitson’s graduate psychology work, the founders soon discovered their eye-tracking research had potential benefits that reached far beyond the marketing world. In fact, it just may serve as early diagnosis for Parkinson’s disease.
“It turns out that the fine motor control of the eye begins to suffer early on with Parkinson’s,” said Harwood. “Using a simple eye tracking test, we can tel the difference between those with and without the disease.”
The discovery led to a spin-off company called iTR|Diagnostics, also led by Harwood and Whitson, and the development of a medical device to diagnose Parkinson’s.
“Our Parkinson’s diagnostic system has tremendous potential and we are already working on expanding the system to include detection of additional diseases,” said Whitson. “In the future, I see the system being used in a number of clinical and research settings.”
“It makes a lot of sense that if we can catch the disease very early, we might be able to help stop it or slow it way down,” said Harwood.
With two companies to run, the founders decided to bring in a marketing specialist. They turned to recent UNI grad, Alyssa Nolte, B.A. ’13.
“My favorite part of my job is being part of a young company as it grows and shifts,” Nolte said. “I specifically joined a start-up because I wanted to be more than just one name on a long list of employees. I have had more opportunities in the six months since my graduation than most recent grads have in the first five years after college and for that I am very thankful.”