Earlier this year, vascular surgeon John Martin was routinely testing out a prototype and discovered something life altering. Martin was working with an FDA-cleared, pocket-sized ultrasound device developed by Butterfly Network, a start-up based in Guilford, Connecticut. He’d recently joined the company as chief medical officer.
The surgeon had been experiencing an uneasy feeling of thickness in his throat, so he ran the electric razor-sized probe along with his neck. The device connects to a smartphone where black-and-grey images appear, resembling the imaging seen on a standard ultrasound machine.
Martin soon spotted a dark, three-centimeter mass.
"I was enough of a doctor to know I was in trouble," he said to MIT Technology Review. It turns out it was squamous-cell cancer. Squamous cell carcinomas are a deadly form of cancer; though treatable, it can metastasize into a terminal disease.
The little device Martin used to find this carcinoma --the Butterfly iQ -- is the first solid-state ultrasound machine on the US market. The company was founded in 2011 by Jonathan Rothberg, an entrepreneur who specializes in adapting semiconductor technology to biology. His previous accomplishments include inventing a method of sequencing DNA on a chip.
Butterfly has raised $100 million thus far to fund the development of this product with plans to sell it for $1,999. This is a far lower price than its competitor, Philips portable scanner called Lumify which costs $6,000.
Usually, an ultrasound scan or sonogram uses high-frequency sound waves to create an image of our internal organs. In most cases, the sound waves are generated using a vibrating crystal or “capacitive micro-machined ultrasound transducers.” Butterfly iQ utilizes 9,000 tiny drums etched onto a semiconductor chip, which is produced in a semiconductor manufacturing plant.
This technique is ultimately a cheaper way to manufacture the product and makes it more versatile.
"Now we think it’s an individual purchase," said Martin. "This gives you the ability to do everything at the bedside: you can pull it out of your pocket and scan the whole body."
Handling an ultrasound machine was usually relegated to technicians or medical professionals, with Butterfly iQ that might change. The practice of scanning patients has become more common in emergency rooms and is often a part of a routine exam, instead of sticking a patient in an X-ray machine to check internal organs. The introduction of an accessible personal device like Butterfly could put a spoke in a hospital’s revenue.
Despite this pushback, Martin and the Butterfly team see a future for this device in various applications, such in ambulances, in remote areas or at home. Parents could diagnose a fracture in their child before heading to the hospital.
"In the 20th century, you had one machine, one operator, and the patient came up to the machine in a suite,” says David Bahner, an emergency medicine physician who has gotten to try the iQ to Forbes. “In the 21st century, you have one machine, multiple operators, and the machine goes to the patient’s bedside. So if this would take it even further. One device, with one person, and you can take it wherever you go. It’s pretty exciting."