Nanox Uses Nanofabrication for Digital Medical Imaging
Big disruptions keep coming in smaller packages. Take the handheld ultrasound machine from Butterfly Network, a startup out of Connecticut that has basically turned a smartphone into a digital medical imaging device. The company found a way to squeeze ultrasound technology onto a single silicon chip – and charge less than $2,000 in the process. The big selling point for the Butterfly iQ isn’t as a replacement for high-end, high-resolution ultrasound machines for high-priced hospital bills. Rather, its affordability and portability mean that it can be a point-of-care diagnostic tool at any bedside in the world, from Boston to Botswana. One consequence of the miniaturization and digitization of healthcare is that more people who lack access to advanced medical technologies will soon have it. A company called Nanox plans to bring this democratization of medical imaging to the humble X-ray machine.
The so-called “radiology divide” between the haves and have-nots slices across the world much as you would expect. Rich countries are so flush in medical imaging technology – X-rays, CT scans, MRIs, ultrasounds, etc. – that they use them with the same abandon that Chinese tourists take selfies. Meanwhile, an estimated one-half to two-thirds of the world’s population mostly rely on the diagnostic gadgetry of stethoscopes and a doctor’s middle finger.
So imagine a lightweight and mobile digital X-ray system that undercuts other comparable scanning systems. Of course, there will be a cloud-based system that does the grunt processing, with a few intelligent algorithms squirreling away to do some behind-the-scene diagnostics. Throw in some nanofabrication technology to help make the whole platform buzz, and you definitely have our attention.
A Socially Conscious Serial Entrepreneur
Before we dive into the tech, let’s introduce the company and the man who helms the Israeli startup. Founded way back in 2011, Nanox has rounded up $55 million in funding. It scored $26 million in January, with an investor base squarely in Asia and led by Foxconn Technology (2354), a major electronics manufacturer headquartered in Taiwan that builds many of the devices we can’t live without like iPhones. Fujifilm (4901) also joined the venture round, along with SK Telecom (SKM), one of the largest telecommunications companies in South Korea. It’s certainly interesting that all the big investors here represent corporate ventures, as apparently these companies have confidence that someone who creates mostly medical technology companies for a living can deliver a winning product in the fast-advancing digital medical imaging market.
That person is Ran Poliakine, who is best known for starting a company called Powermat Technologies, which helped pioneer the wireless charging technology that now keeps our smartphones and toothbrushes charged, fighting that scourge known as low-battery anxiety. Another one of his startups, SixAI, is developing (and even reportedly buying) the AI tech to power robotic platforms in six different applications like visual industrial inspection or robotic tractors. However, the real passion of this serial entrepreneur appears to be creating socially responsible-themed companies that design technologies to enhance human health. Here are a few of them:
- Wellsense offers a visualization technology to detect bedsores, also known as pressure injuries, something we learned about in our article on Inspiren and its AI-powered bedside monitor.
- At the heart of his company, Illumigyn, is a medical device that uses machine vision to detect cervical cancer.
- A water technology startup called Years of Water has manufactured a water purification system for those who really have to work to get clean water.
Of course, what we really want to know is what are Poliakine and Nanox creating with that $55 million.
Digital Medical Imaging for X-rays
First, we’ll start with the boilerplate press release description and then break it down for you:
The Nanox System is composed of the Nanox.Arc, a novel digital X-ray device and the Nanox.Cloud, a companion cloud-based software that will be designed to provide an end-to-end medical imaging service, that is expected to include image repository, radiologist matching, online and offline diagnostics review and annotation, connectivity to diagnostic assistive artificial intelligence systems, billing, and reporting.
Second, you may want to read this brief refresher on how X-ray machines work. If you can’t be bothered, then just remember that the basic technology involves heating up a filament, like you might find in old fluorescent lights, inside a glass vacuum tube. The electrons let loose from the cathode, or filament, shoot super fast toward the positively charged anode. Some subatomic hijinks ensue before releasing a shower of photons that can be directed to pass through an object or person where on the other end a digital camera captures the X-rays.
That technology is so 19th century. Nanox has developed what Poliakine has described as a cold cathode technology that takes its inspiration from innovations pioneered by Sony. With a name like Nanox, you might suspect that nanotechnology also plays a role in how the company’s digital X-ray machine works. And you would be right. In an interview on a Medium post, Poliakine describes how the Nanox.ARC works:
At the core of the high-powered cold cathode is a ‘chip’ of nano-scale structures – created using proprietary nanofabrication techniques. The chip is designed to support various use cases of medical imaging and will be supported by peripheral technologies to translate their benefits into various real-world applications.
He goes on to say that Nanox’s cold cathode vastly improves on energy efficiency, which no doubt helps in creating a mobile X-ray machine. “Just like LED changed the way we engage with light, Nanox transforms the way we engage with X-rays,” or some version of that quote is something you’ll read a lot from Poliakine in the press.
Advantages of Digital X-ray Machine
You’ll also often read quotes from Poliakine about how the Nanox.ARC is designed to be a preventative medical device with a service that’s so cheap that everyone will be able to afford a scan once a year. The company claims its portable machine can detect medical conditions that are normally discovered by X-ray and X-ray-based imaging systems like CT scans and mammograms – but for much less.
Poliakine has also been quoted as saying that Nanox will price its scans for less than $100 a pop against the average cost of $300 for other X-ray-based medical image scans. In the same TechRepublic article, he said the company plans to deploy 15,000 X-ray units in communities around the world that lack access to basic medical screenings. The thousands of images captured every day will no doubt be absorbed into the Nanox cloud to feed data-hungry algorithms that will become better at delivering diagnostics over time.
We already know that medical imaging itself is undergoing a tectonic shift thanks to artificial intelligence, a paradigm change that we’ve written about often with several lists on AI healthcare diagnostics startups, including companies focused on medical imaging for surgery or managing all the data created around medical imaging. A recent story in Forbes suggested that AI and medical imaging could even play a role in battling epidemics like the current coronavirus outbreak. The story quotes our favorite media darling, Poliakine, who said diagnostic tools like his company’s could be used to quickly and cheaply scan people at scale.
Speaking of scaling: Nanox just inked a deal with a teleradiology company called USARAD that is backed by Siemens Healthineers (SMMNY), a major German medical technology company, among others. Nanox and USARAD will collaborate on deploying 3,000 of the former’s sleek, new digital medical imaging hardware systems in the United States, with the latter helping administer Nanox’s Medical Screening as a Service (MSaaS), pay-per-scan business model using its expertise in teleradiology.
You can probably see where this is going: Nanox appears ready to give away its hardware in exchange for a never-ending revenue stream from selling scans until the end of time. It’s obviously betting that its machines and software will be an attractive combination of affordability, portability, and usability, so that they will become as ubiquitous as defibrillators in a Cracker Barrel.
We’ve gotten pretty used to seeing big-time innovation coming out of the Startup Nation, whether we’re talking about artificial intelligence, alternative proteins, or even waste management. A digital medical imaging device that’s just as good as any X-ray or CT scan but about the size of a skinny truck tire could put Nanox on the road to success.