Entrepreneur Seeks To Make Handheld Ultrasound Window Into The Body

He's hoping his device can be a super-cheap alternative to big hospital machines.

12 Weeks, In Ultrasound

Wolfgang Moroder on Wikimedia Commons, [CC BY-SA 3.0

Biotech entrepreneur Jonathan Rothberg is working on a handheld ultrasound device that can replace the big machines hospitals use today to check on growing fetuses, evaluate tumors, and more. Plug the device into a smartphone, hold it up to a person's body, and you'll get a window-like view of what's inside, the device's patent promises. Popular Science previously covered Rothberg's work on a $1,000 genome sequencer, which we gave a Best of What's New Award in 2012.

Whether his ultrasound idea will work depends on whether he's able to commercialize a novel ultrasound technology, MIT Technology Review reports. The technology is the capacitive micro-machined ultrasound transducer. It's a silicon-based alternative to the crystals that traditional ultrasound machines use for their most fundamental task, producing and detecting sound waves. MIT Technology Review explains:

[Rothberg's startup] Butterfly appears to be placing the largest bet yet by any company on an emerging technology in which ultrasound emitters are etched directly onto a semiconductor wafer, alongside circuits and processors. The devices are known as 'capacitive micro-machined ultrasound transducers,' or CMUTs. Most ultrasound machines use small piezoelectric crystals or ceramics to generate and receive sound waves. But these have to be carefully wired together . . . . Anyone who can integrate ultrasound elements directly onto a computer chip could manufacture them cheaply in large batches.

Japanese electronics manufacturer Hitachi does already seem to make and sell a CMUT-based ultrasound machine, but it's not immediately clear how big the machine is or how much it costs. Rothberg wants to make a CMUT-based device that works as well as piezoelectric-based hospital machines for a few hundred dollars, MIT Technology Review reports. Hospital ultrasound equipment costs $100,000 or more, Radiology Today reported in 2013.

His success may depend on medical practice and culture as much as science and research, one review of CMUT technology, published in 2011, suggests: "The complete commercial success of CMUT technology depends more on finding applications with high volume markets, rather than overcoming technological hurdles."