A few years ago, I had the opportunity to commercialize an ultrasound technology. Reflecting upon this process, I am very grateful that there were so many team members and things (including those beyond our control) that contributed to the success of the project. By sharing our journey from the research bench to public use, I hope that people will get an idea of what is involved in a commercialization process and appreciate the importance of team work.
It started with our research team who sketched out an idea of using multiple push beams spaced out like a comb to generate multiple shear waves at the same time. It could be used to improve both signal-to-noise ratio and the frame rate for ultrasound elastography. Fortunately our lab had a research scanner that came with a programmable platform. This idea was prototyped and tested on the same day and it worked! Were it not for the research scanner, it would have taken months to get this done. The alternative process involves contacting an ultrasound company (if we ever find one), gaining their support (a research agreement could take months to reach), and testing on a commercial prototype scanner (which is much harder compared to using a research scanner).
It was soon discovered afterwards that the interference of shear waves from the comb push beams make it very hard to calculate the wave speed for elasticity imaging accurately. A mathematician in our team offered to apply a signal processing algorithm that detangles the complicated shear waves into simpler component waves. It solved our problem and helped the idea pass the initial functionality test. The next step was to show the industry the translational potential of this technology and out-license it to them for further development and testing.
Back then, the clinical ultrasound division at our institution was developing a strategic partnership with a leading ultrasound company, which was looking for a shear wave elastography solution for their products. The company soon decided to license our technology. To speed up the progress, our intellectual property (IP) office negotiated the licensing agreement with the company, while we worked with the company engineers on the technology in parallel. Both parties shared a common culture of openness, which allowed us to exchange codes with each other. This trusting relationship was found to be very beneficial by both sides as we shared the dedication to achieve common goals quickly.
To ensure the successful implementation of the prototype, the collaboration continues in the form of site visits and numerous teleconferences between the sites until satisfied phantom and in vivo results were yielded. When the near-end prototype was available, an independent clinical study was performed at our institution to verify the performance and establish cut points for liver fibrosis staging. It greatly exemplified the benefit of affiliating with a large medical center. The extensive interdisciplinary research and medical environment at our institution has provided a unifying framework that bridges the gap of technical creation and clinical deployment. Upon positive results from clinical trials, the company was able to launch the product in 2014. The technique was FDA-approved and released at RSNA. We are very pleased to see the research outcome has been taken from the bench to the bedside and is improving the effectiveness of patient care worldwide.
It truly takes a village to make this happen. The success came with the supports of a huge team of ultrasound physicist, PhD student, mathematician, study coordinator, sonographer, radiologist, IP staff, and licensing manager. It calls for an industrial partner that has shared appreciation of value and common core objectives. Looking back at our journey, it is without question that every step presents its own challenge. By sharing our experiences, we hope to contribute to your future successful technology commercialization.
Have you tried to commercialize an ultrasound technology? Have you had a different experience commercializing ultrasound technology? Comment below or let us know on Twitter: @AIUM_Ultrasound.
Shiago Chen, PhD, is a Professor at the Department of Radiology, Mayo Clinic College of Medicine.