Diagnostic ultrasound, also known as sonography, is an important method of medical imaging.
Ultrasound is most commonly used to monitor a pregnant woman and her developing baby, but it can also be used to evaluate blood flow, diagnose diseases and monitor tumors and inflammation.
Now, a Tucson startup is taking ultrasound on the road with its unique mobile ultrasound platform, which can work from an ordinary smartphone using a simple peripheral device.
“I think that cell phones — and mobile devices in general — are the real equalizer of our time,” said Courtney Williams, co-founder and CEO of Emagine Solutions Technology, the company behind the VistaScan mobile ultrasound.
“Research shows that there are more cell phones than toilets in the world and that mobile devices are multiplying faster than people,” Williams said. “It’s my belief that we can really leverage this technology that everybody has in their hand in order to improve health outcomes for people and patients everywhere.”
The technology is simple, she said. A clinician can download the VistaScan app, plug in a compatible ultrasound probe (there are three currently) and start scanning immediately.
“This is basically a doctor’s first line of defense before having to go to one of the larger machines for further analysis,” Williams said. “VistaScan is the ideal quick-look tool… whether it’s at the bedside, in the clinic or in transit, or anywhere in between. If a patient’s condition needs to be assessed, this can do the job as the initial quick look.”
VistaScan is especially useful for finding quick answers about the health of a mother and fetus during pregnancy, Williams said.
“For example, quickly assessing the fetal position, checking fetal heart rate, things like that,” she said. “It’s also great in an emergency trauma situation, where you need to determine whether there’s fluid in the body, such as between the kidney and the liver, in an area called Morison’s pouch.”
At Emagine Solutions Technology — a certified Women’s Business Enterprise — Williams said she is on the business side, while her co-founder, Jose Juarez, is the technical expert.
Juarez formerly worked as a software engineer at companies like Roche and Philips, and his contacts at those places proved essential in the company’s early days of development.
“We were able to get a good start and build a team pretty quickly,” Williams said. “In addition, we joined the University of Arizona Center for Innovation. We’re based here in Tucson, and they’re at the Tech Park, and through that incubator we’ve gotten a lot of amazing mentorship — access to events such as learning the regulatory structure and understanding grant writing and big things like that.”
The support provided by the Center for Innovation introduced Emagine Solutions Technology to numerous opportunities for prestigious grant funding from across the state, she said. Earlier in 2019, the company won the nonprofit Flinn Foundation 2019 Bioscience Entrepreneurship Program grant as well as the Cox Get Started business competition from Cox Communications.
“That was the impetus to be able to continue with our startup and move it forward,” Williams said.
The most difficult aspect of getting a medical technology startup off the ground is understanding the regulatory structure and ensuring the company is prepared for the constantly-changing regulatory ecosystem distinct to the United States Food and Drug Administration, Williams said.
It was also challenging to find willing participants to test the technology for usability and give feedback during the initial development phase, she said. The company is still working on those issues, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
Williams said an emergency physician from Banner Medical Center in Tucson brought an early version of VistaScan to Uganda, where he met a sick patient who other doctors were having trouble diagnosing. The Tucson doctor pulled out the mobile ultrasound device and soon discovered the patient had gallstones, resulting in the patient receiving life-saving care.
But it takes more than anecdotal evidence to market the technology in the U.S.
“The precursor to commercializing the technology is getting our FDA clearance, and we’re in the middle of that process currently,” Williams said. “As soon as we hear back from the FDA, and as soon as they give us the go-ahead, we’ll be able to launch to the individuals who already signed up for our waitlist.”
Arizona has provided the perfect “entrepreneurial ecosystem” to launch the startup alongside countless other startups in the state, she said.
“My favorite thing has been meeting other people who are also on their own entrepreneurial journeys and being able to learn from them; and we can share battle stories and understand how to move our ventures forward together,” Williams said. “And it’s a very collaborative environment here in Arizona – in Tucson, and Phoenix as well — and being able to have a foot in both places and learn from experts in the field that we can find right here in our backyard has been my favorite part of the venture so far.”
Now, Williams said she hopes her invention will take off and help patients around the world.
“My grand vision for this is that VistaScan becomes the number-one tool in the world to do quick-look ultrasounds, and that, hopefully, we can impact patient outcomes not just in the back of an ambulance but also [with regard to] maternal health especially,” she said.
That last point shouldn’t be missed — the maternal mortality rate in the U.S. more than doubled from 1991 to 2014, according to the Harvard Business Review. That means more than 700 American women die of complications related to pregnancy each year, and experts say two-thirds of those deaths are preventable.
Williams was inspired to create her mobile ultrasound system after seeing her sister bed-bound for months during a high-risk pregnancy, according to her statement on the VistaScan website.
“Luckily my sister and her baby are healthy and happy today, but not everyone is so fortunate,” she wrote.
Williams said Juarez, her co-founder and close friend, was born in Argentina and was inspired to join her after he saw firsthand the challenges patients and clinicians in low-resource regions face trying to understand patient maladies without access to an ultrasound system.
“It’s 2019; there are still 300,000 women dying from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, and that’s happening in our country, too, with one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the developed world,” Williams said.
“The idea of having more access, especially to rural communities, with the use of our tool — I really do think that we can save lives and help outcomes improve.”