Startup Develops Portable, Smartphone Compatible Ultrasound Scanner

February 16, 2018
Hertz Staff

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - A startup, co-founded by an MIT graduate, has developed a low-cost, portable ultrasound scanner that generates clinical-quality screenings on a smartphone.

By making ultrasounds more accessible, the co-founders aim to help health care professionals generate life-saving diagnoses with more ease.

The start-up, Butterfly Network, developed the scanner in part due to the efforts done by co-founder Nevada Sanchez, an MIT alumnus.

The idea behind the portable ultrasound is to provides health care professionals as well as patients to be able to produce ultrasound imaging through a smartphone.

The small, handheld device, named iQ, resembles an electric razor and can be plugged into an iPhone lightning jack, essentially putting an entire ultrasound system in a chip.

The ultrasounds are then uploaded to the cloud, where any expert with permission can give second opinions and help analyze images.

The device, cleared by the FDA in November 2017 for numerous clinical applications, is portable and sells for about $2,000.

“First users will be doctors and clinicians who are more comfortable with ultrasounds,” says Sanchez, now the startup’s chip design lead. “But, eventually, everyone from paramedics to nurses to doctors who have never used ultrasound will carry with them.”

Co-founder Jonathan Rothberg says the future aim is to sell directly to consumers and have iQ be purchased by people the same way blood-pressure monitors and defibrillators are available for home use.

"Those started in doctor's office and are now in people's homes," said Rothberg. "In the next few years, we'll work with the FDA, so anyone who wants a window into the human body can have it."

In fact, the device has already proven valuable for consumer use: After joining the startup last year as chief medical officer, John Martin, a surgeon, was at a hospital testing the iQ. Having felt a lump in his throat for some time, he scanned his neck, which revealed a tumor that was then diagnosed as cancerous. He recently finished his first round of treatment.

“I actually became the first consumer patient,” Martin says. “That underscores how powerful having a device like this in hands of people themselves will be for the future of medical care. I’m the living evidence that lives will be saved.”

Ultrasound machines rely on transducers, small devices with embedded quartz crystals.

Applying an electric current to the crystals makes them vibrate and produce sound waves traveling into a body. When returning echoes hit the crystals, they emit electrical currents that can be translated by electronics into an ultrasound image.

The iQ’s low cost and accuracy is in part due to Sanchez’s work designing chips that function like the crystals but are manufactured at a drastically lower price point.

Artificial intelligence and augmented reality help make the iQ's imaging more user-friendly.

Should a user have trouble positioning the iQ, AI algorithms detect the probe's location and recognize what the user is most likely trying to scan.

Augmented reality symbols then direct the user where to position the probe, making it easier to see and understand the ultrasound.

"The user points the phone’s camera at the probe and they get a 3-D arrow telling them to move up or tilt it,” Sanchez says. “We’ve pulled people off the street and had them find a valid view of the heart in about a minute and a half.”

The iQ is also the first universal ultrasound device that can image an entire body.

Crystals in ultrasound devices resonate at one narrow frequency tailored to individual areas. A user will need one probe to capture, say, a patient’s veins and another to image the heart or kidney.

Currently, the iQ is selling only in the U.S. But Butterfly Network is in talks with nonprofits, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to bring it to the developing world. In many remote areas, clinicians don’t have access to ultrasound technologies that can be used to, say, detect fetal health issues that cause women to die in childbirth.

“This is a perfect solution,” Sanchez says. “Because it’s low cost, we can put in the hands of doctors in remote locations and instantly save thousands of lives. But, I know there will also be other areas in critical care and in emergency rooms around developed and developing worlds where people’s lives will be saved because of what we built. For me, that’s motivating.”