After Jonathan Rothberg’s daughter was diagnosed with tuberous sclerosis, he found himself joining her on frequent trips to the doctor. MRI scans had revealed tumors and cysts on her kidneys. The experience crystalized for Rothberg, himself a doctor, how cumbersome medical imaging technology can be, and what an advance it could be to make it smaller and more accessible.
Diagnostic imaging technology is very expensive, hard to transport, and requires a reliable source of power. For small, under-resourced villages in the developing world, getting access to lifesaving diagnostic tools like MRI, PET scans, or ultrasound is difficult. Butterfly iQ, Rothberg’s company, has found an innovative way to shrink down the technology so it can be used with a mobile phone–making it a lot easier to bring these resources to remote patients. It’s the winner of Fast Company’s 2019 World Changing Ideas Awards in the Health category.
Ultrasound equipment can range in price from $10,000 to $200,000 per machine, depending on its complexity. Portable models are considerably less, though still relatively pricey. General Electric’s VScan starts at $4,000 per unit, for example. Butterfly iQ’s ultrasound equipment costs less than $2,000.
It’s able to reduce cost so much because it’s so small: Generally, ultrasound machines use quartz crystals to emanate sound waves into the body. Butterfly IQ instead uses thousands of metal drums fitted onto a chip the size of a postage stamp. It comes with a mobile app that interprets ultrasound images using artificial intelligence. (The Food and Drug Administration has approved Butterfly iQ for 13 tests.)
Butterfly iQ is currently working with Bridge to Health to connect doctors in Kenya and Uganda with its ultrasound equipment as a diagnostic tool in remote villages. The company is also working with schools, like New York University and University of Connecticut, to make sure that students have access to its device as well.
Because of its ability to revolutionize both U.S. healthcare and frontline healthcare in the developing world, interest in the tech is high from a wide variety of investors. In 2018, Butterfly iQ received $250 million in funding from Fidelity, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, York Capital Management founder Jamie Dinan, and Fosun Pharma. Last fall, the company began shipping to more than 20,000 medical professionals who reserved devices in advance.