An ultrasound scanner that fits in a pocket could change global healthcare

Published June 11, 2019

What inspires innovation?

In the case of Jonathan Rothberg, M.S., M.Phil, and Ph.D., it began when his daughter was diagnosed with a rare disease called tuberous sclerosis, which causes tumors or growths in the body. As a chemical engineer, biologist, and professor of genetics at Yale University, Rothberg’s response to his daughter’s diagnosis and the lack of satisfactory medical solutions was to search for a cure himself. Together with his wife Bonnie, they created the Rothberg Institute for Childhood Diseases.

After the initial diagnosis nearly two decades ago, Rothberg says his daughter is doing well.

The birth of Butterfly iQ, an ultrasound scanner that works with a smart phone

Since then, the scientist-entrepreneur has launched eight different companies to incubate new ideas and new technologies that address seemingly intractable healthcare issues. One of these tech companies is called the Butterfly Network, whose mission is to “democratize healthcare by making medical imaging accessible to everyone around the world.” That’s no easy task. Rothberg says that, today, “4.7 billion people around the world lack access to medical imaging,” such as ultrasounds.

So the Butterfly Network invented a whole body, hand-held ultrasound scanner called the Butterfly iQ®. Butterfly iQ is portable and works anywhere in the world with a cell phone. This battery-operated, wirelessly charged device uses an app to acquire and securely transmit imagery for review and diagnosis. The Butterfly iQ is the first hand-held, ultrasound scanner for under $2,000, substantially lower than other handheld scanners and a far cry from the cost of traditional ultrasound medical imaging technology, which can range anywhere from $20,000 up.

The company is working to get the Butterfly iQ ultrasound scanner into the hands of as many medical professionals as possible. To date, scanners have been donated to medical charities working in 13 low income countries, including seven in Africa.

Winning the award for healthcare innovation

On June 1st, 2019, Rothberg, along with Butterfly Network co-founder Nevada Sanchez and Design Lead, Gioel Molinari, were honored at the Not Impossible Awards, held in Los Angeles. 

The Not Impossible Awards were created by Mick Ebeling, Founder of Not Impossible Labs, to “recognize the work and stories of people and companies who share our mission to create technology for the sake of humanity,” says Ebeling.

Sponsored by the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association (BCBSA), Not Impossible’s Healthcare Breakthrough Award category recognizes innovations in healthcare. The award also recognizes innovations that align with United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which include promoting prosperity and building a better world for all people.

“At BCBSA, we recognize that breakthrough technologies can make healthcare more accessible, more affordable, and ultimately improve lives,” said Trent Haywood, MD, BCBSA’s chief medical officer. “We’re proud to help shine a light on the kind of technologies we believe are game changers.”

Simplified operating system, simplified use, and a technology that learns as it goes

What makes the Butterfly iQ scanner different from existing ultrasound machines is the way Rothberg’s team has simplified the operating system. In order to create an image, a traditional ultrasound device has to be able to produce wavelengths from different perspectives. Unlike previous operating systems, which use fragile crystals to create these wavelengths, Rothberg’s scanner uses 9,000 tiny sensors. Think of them as the tops of little drums, all residing on a single silicon chip. Each of these sensors creates a waveform, like hitting the top of the drum. The information generated by each sensor is then combined to create an image.

What’s more, says president Gioel Molinari, “the Butterfly iQ utilizes artificial intelligence to teach the unit to interpret images,” which makes it easier for less experienced clinicians to use.

Once an image is captured, it can be sent via secure connection to medical professionals anywhere in the world. “Consulting is as easy as sending a text message, and the tech is accessible, in your pocket, 24 hours a day,” says Rothberg. 

The unit has FDA clearance for diagnostic imaging of 13 clinical conditions, covering the entire body.

The Blue Cross Blue Shield Association is an association of independent, local operated Blue Cross and Blue Shield companies. Butterfly iQ is a registered trademark of Butterfly Network, Inc.