Korean startup develops handheld sonogram device for the mobile age

Mobile healthcare isn't just about fitness trackers and apps: South Korean startup Healcerion has developed an innovative handheld sonogram device and accompanying big data analyses for on-scene check-ups that could save thousands of lives.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is all the buzz in the public sphere thanks to the match between Google's AlphaGo and a Korean Go champion in Seoul earlier this month. But AI has long been the interest of computer engineers like Healcerion CEO and founder Benjamin Jeongwon Ryu, who has also been a lifelong tech entrepreneur involved in dozens of projects -- embedded systems, operating systems, email and digital signal processing in the venture scene -- in South Korea.

Keen to do something in AI but feeling the need to learn more, Ryu, in the middle of a successful career as an entrepreneur spanning the 1990s and early 2000s, decided to get a medical doctorate following the advice of colleagues who suggested he study neurology and the human body. He got his degree and in 2011, while running his own firm in the afternoon, worked night shifts for two intense years in an emergency room.

There he had the most harrowing experience. A pregnant woman was brought in one night with her husband. The woman was in a critical condition from an unknown cause, suspected to be something she ate. Both were mentally handicapped, and Ryu was unable to find out through verbal communication the precise illness or injury. After performing CPR, a helicopter was called to take her to a nearby, larger hospital for intensive care.

Ryu volunteered to ride along. But he had to watch the woman, helplessly, not knowing the cause of her illness. She died on arrival. So did the unborn child with her.

"Being on the helicopter, it was the longest 10 minutes of my life. My son was just born, so seeing a pregnant woman die, it really struck a nerve with me," said the CEO. "I kept asking myself, what if there was a sonogram in the ambulance, or the helicopter, so that we could have found out the cause as soon as possible. We could have at least determined whether it was possible to save either the child or the mother. Having that option would have saved at least one of them."

General ultrasound devices weigh over hundred kilograms and cost around $140,000 per budget model units. They are rarely placed in emergency rooms due to lack of stock or infrequent usage. To Ryu, in the age of smartphones, big data, and ubiquitous web, this didn't make sense.

"The iPhone, and my background as a computing engineer, really made me think making a smaller sonogram device was possible. It was the future. The app and server were now accessible and ubiquitous, and fast data transferring was possible," said Ryu. Electronic Medical Record (EMR), which has countless standards to uphold and is difficult to transfer digitally, was slowly migrating from PC to mobile.

Breaking healthcare inequality through mobile

He founded Healcerion in 2012, wanting to provide affordable care, and to make the smallest sonogram device possible that can be synced with tablets or smartphones and can instantly display results on the screen. They developed Sonon 300C, a 360-gram handheld sonogram device with a chargeable battery, Wi-Fi, and 3G/LTE connection, along with an accompanying app that supports iOS and Android, that costs only $6,000.

Sonon 300C

(Image: supplied)

Health professionals can perform a diagnosis on the spot to patients, with the sonogram image instantly loaded to their smartphones or tablets. Healcerion's server can send comparative sonogram images to the device for a precise diagnosis.

For example, Ryu went to Mongolia and performed a sonogram diagnosis on a pregnant woman, and sent the image right away to a colleague in South Korea to get his opinion.

The convex probe attached at the end is one of its unique features that allows for precise sonogram reading and a differentiating point from rival products.

Having the image on a touch-screen device is also a huge plus. For conventional ultrasound devices, doctors must use a controller ball to zoom image in and out or for measurement. But with the image loaded on their tablets, Sonon allows them to configure it with their hands, allowing a quicker diagnosis.

"It was harder than I thought to pack in all the things needed for an ultrasound device to a size that can be handheld," said the CEO. "Making a system that streams and uploads sonogram images from tablets to hospitals and vice versa also took a lot of effort to build."

Digital signal processing and image transfer was the easy part, which was done within 8 months. Noise control took 3 years. "An ultrasound device requires high voltage, in direct current, to shoot the sonar wave, because when it bounces back it becomes considerably weaker.

"But having high voltage causes noise and heat that disrupts the device. Muffling unwanted noise was very, very difficult. This is why most companies don't attempt this because of technological difficulty and the rising cost. But we achieved it after changing the design countless times."

Mobile medical equipment is a big trend in US and Europe. Global giants such as GE and Siemens have developed their own handheld devices, but Ryu believes Sonon's convex probe module, affordability, and wireless support make it stand out more.

The Sonon 300C is just the start. Besides the convex module, the firm is finishing up the development of a linear one, suitable for small animals. Also, a flat, square-shaped phased array type for echocaridogram will be finished within this year.

Healcerion is donating most of the Sonon devices for public projects in South Korea and emerging markets where affordable healthcare is always needed. In the enterprise segment, the company is involved in multiple creative share value (CSV) projects with global firms from developed counties aimed at Southeast Asia and Africa.

So far, 300 units have been shipped all across the world. It donates 30 units for public healthcare centres in Vietnam, as well as education for staff on how to correctly operate them.

Ryu's biggest hope is that more and more mobile healthcare technology is developed, so that more point-of-care diagnoses can occur that will save lives.

"Sonogram had been developed 50 years ago, but it is still has a very high entry barrier," said Ryu. "Korea produces around 3,600 doctors a year, but less than 1 percent know how to operate an ultrasound device. Because only certain fields use sonogram and devices are limited by their size to certain places. So education is one of our biggest priorities.

"But starting from two years ago, point-of-care sonogram has become a huge trend. We are really excited about this. It gives us new business opportunities, and a chance for those in care to get the care they need immediately."

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