T-bird Entrepreneur Innovates in Medical Technology to Make a Difference
This Tucson entrepreneur is working to make portable ultrasound accessible in Arizona and around the world
Several years ago, Courtney Williams watched as her sister endured a difficult pregnancy.
Her sister, bedridden, received the necessary medical care, and the story ended happily, with a healthy baby.
But a question lodged itself in Williams' mind: What if her sister hadn't gotten access to quality medical care? How might the story have changed?
"We're on a mission to become the No. 1, handheld ultrasound for OB-GYN and emergency healthcare," says Williams, the CEO and co-founder of the company. "It's a big mission."
Williams, 36, started the company in 2016 with her co-founder and chief technology officer Jose Juarez. At the end of February, the company announced that it received clearance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to market the mobile ultrasound platform.
"It's handheld and easy to throw in a backpack or have on your person," says Dr. Berndt Schmit, the service chief of emergency radiology at Banner - University Medical Center Tucson and founder of Humanitarian Radiology Development Corps. Schmit says he has taken VistaScan on missions in Haiti and Bolivia.
He sees portable ultrasound technology as a game-changer for care around the world and in the U.S., especially in lower-resource communities where there may be no other imaging options (or shaky electricity to power a cart-based machine). He adds that while full-size machines perform better than portable devices, they can also cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Williams says VistaScan will cost about one-tenth of that.
"Like the revolution of the stethoscope and suddenly we had a way to listen inside the body, now we can see inside the body, and it's right inside your pocket," Schmit says.
The VistaScan software and compatible ultrasound probes allow a clinician to use a phone or tablet for diagnostic ultrasound imaging — it's a quick look that can help determine whether further imaging is required, Williams says. It is currently compatible with Android devices.
"Basically, you need a compatible probe, and then you download the VistaScan app, plug the probe into the mobile device and boom, you're using the phone's processing power," Williams says. "All of the imaging is happening on your phone."
Emagine Solutions Technology is woman-owned, developing a product that will help women. That makes a difference, Williams says. In January, Conscious Company Media included her on a list of "43 World-Changing Women in Conscious Business — 2020."
Williams, who received a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona's Eller College of Management and an MBA from Arizona State University's Thunderbird School of Global Management, has also worked closely with the local startup community. That includes the UA Center for Innovation, Startup Tucson's former Thryve program, Bioindustry Organization of Southern Arizona and the Venture Ready program with the Arizona Commerce Authority through an Arizona Innovation Challenge grant. According to an Arizona Daily Star story, the company has also won seed money and attention at several business-pitch competitions.
In developing the business, Williams, who is from Tucson, recalled her own experiences living abroad in countries including Guatemala and Ghana. That, along with her co-founder's experiences in his home country of Argentina, compelled her to find a solution that could help physicians both globally and at home who may not have easy access to ultrasound technology.
That lack of access, especially in low-resource communities around the world, contributes to inadequate care in emergency health situations and to maternal mortality — Schmit points out that ultrasound is critical to obstetrics because it provides real-time imaging with no radiation.
"You can just do a quick look..." Williams says. "What's the fetal positioning? Is the fetal growth looking good? That sort of thing."
UNICEF reports that in 2017, 295,000 women and girls died of pregnancy and childbirth complications (the number has declined since 2000).
In 2018, 658 women died of maternal causes in the United States, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics. That ranks the U.S. last among other wealthy countries.
"If we think this isn’t our issue, it really is," Williams says. "Ultrasound can help answer questions and direct treatment so people can get help faster."
We sat down with Williams at a tea shop downtown several weeks ago to ask her about her company and vision. Here are a few excerpts from our conversation.
Editor's note: These comments have been edited for clarity and length.
Tell us more about how your sister's pregnancy sparked Emagine Solutions Technology.
"Seeing what my sister went through being on bed rest all that time, it made me realize what could have happened to her if she had been in a different place where she didn't have good medical care. And some of the communities in which I've lived over my life haven't had access to good medical care, so I started researching, 'No really. What would have happened to her?' And I was floored that maternal mortality is such an issue."
Can you talk a bit more about how your experiences abroad contributed to the development of VistaScan?
"Initially we developed this tool to be a global health tool, and then as we did more research and investigation and talked to more clinicians here, we realized we hadn't looked in our own backyard as well. We thought maybe we should start here and serve the problem here (especially in rural Arizona) first."
What are some of the things you've seen through your beta-testing?
"Ultrasound is so key to understanding what's going on internally, and we've seen this in our beta tests, and I'm experiencing this now in my own pregnancy. Ultrasound really helps a patient understand his or her own anatomy, and that is so key to accepting diagnoses and feeling well and just being.
"That was something we found out in our beta tests ... We did a usability study in East Africa and the patients, the biggest feedback they gave about the whole thing was the patients had never had an ultrasound before, whether it was for a kidney or for women's health, and to be able to see what was happening live on the screen was really key for people."
Williams is currently looking to interview women who are currently pregnant or who have given birth in the last year about the experience and the information provided to them throughout the process. For more information, visit vistascan.co.
Any physician interested in using VistaScan can call or text 888-345-1115 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The company is offering a discount to Arizona-based physicians who are early adopters. It is also providing free product demos, and clinicians can sign up for a demo at vistascan.co.
Content owned and originally published by The Arizona Daily Star / Tucson.com