Butterfly ultrasound

Disintermediation. Miniaturization. Commoditization. Big words for big concepts, but the simple fact is that technology has made devices smaller, faster, and more affordable that let the average person perform tasks that used to require trained technical staff and millions of dollars. We’re familiar with how this story goes, but brace yourself; here comes a game changer. According to a story in MIT Technology Review, serial entrepreneur Jonathan Rothberg is preparing a new, mobile ultrasound imaging device that “will be small, cost a few hundred dollars, connect to a phone, and be able to do things like diagnose breast cancer or visualize a fetus.”

His company Butterfly Network has filed a patent application that gives some hints as to what this new scanner might work. It is designed to be “a window” on the hidden insides of a person. Attached to a smartphone (presumably for the display and perhaps some of its processing power or access to the Cloud), the device could produce real-time 3D imagery. The key technology is building an ultrasound emitter and receiver right on a semiconductor chip along with supporting processors and other components. By integrating everything on a single chip, production costs are drastically reduced. Chips based on this concept have proven difficult to manufacture reliably, but it appears that Butterfly may have resolved these issues.

A product like this could bring affordable real-time medical imaging to medical professionals worldwide, even in third-world countries. The quality of diagnosis and treatment could be greatly improved as a result. But it also means that consumers could gain access to the technology, in much the same way that home blood pressure devices have become affordable. And if the resulting images are analyzed in the Cloud, it is possible that automated diagnosis could provide initial screening of patient data. Diseases, injuries, and other conditions could be identified more accurately and sooner, which could lead to more positive outcomes and reduced costs. Rothman and other investors have given Butterfly $100 million, and we could see a shipping product in as little as 18 months.