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LifeImage and EMC Planning New Cloud Storage Service for Medical Data

When I went to visit LifeImage CEO Hamid Tabatabaie at his firm’s headquarters in Newton, MA, last week, one of my main goals was to learn more about the breadth and depth of the health IT startup’s ties with storage giant EMC (NYSE:EMC). That question was quickly answered when EMC senior VP Joel Schwartz walked into Tabatabaie’s office at the start of my interview with the CEO and said a casual goodbye to Tabatabaie.

Reality check: Senior executives like Schwartz from big tech firms don’t typically walk the hallways of startups unless they’ve got serious business with the smaller firms. And it turns out that LifeImage and Hopkinton, MA-based EMC are planning to announce a new cloud-based service for sharing medical images over the Internet at the annual HIMSS (Health Information and Management Systems Society) meeting in Atlanta early next month, according to Tabatabaie. This virtual drop box is targeted for use in trauma centers, and so will be called “Time,” which is short for Trauma Image Management and Exchange. Orthopedic surgeons, for example, could use their Time accounts to accept and share digital images of bone fractures. The system consists of software that LifeImage has built to run on the EMC “Atmos” cloud storage and computing platform.

I wasn’t able to talk to Schwartz about Time (in part because he ducked in and out of Tabatabaie’s office quite fast). But Tabatabaie provided some insights about where his firm and EMC are going with the project. For starters, it’s part of an overall effort at Life Image to address the lack of secure and accessible means for doctors and patients to share and transfer digital medical images, which are typically stored on CDs that patients hang onto and/or within the confines of individual IT systems at hospitals and other clinical centers. From a strategic perspective, Tabatabaie says that his firm and EMC are anticipating significant growth in the use of cloud technology for storage and sharing of medical images; the number of radiology exams done in the U.S. is projected to reach 1 billion per year by 2012.

“Healthcare imaging data is the largest health data [market] in size,” Tabatabaie says. “If anybody would want to own that [market], it should be EMC because they are the owners of both the storage and security technologies, they are the leaders.”

To hear Tabatabaie tell it, it sounds like EMC’s interest in partnering with his firm complements the Hopkinton firm’s existing dominance in the business of providing hospitals with storage technology, specifically with networked systems that replace the tapes and CDs that clinical centers previously used to store imaging records. (EMC doesn’t break out sales by sector in their 2009 annual report, but it’s no secret that the company’s technology is widely used in hospitals and that the healthcare market is of strategic importance to the firm.) Yet public cloud storage, which essentially enables users to rent online storage on a pay-as-you-go basis, hasn’t yet caught on in healthcare and other industries, due in large part to security concerns.

Still, the conventional wisdom is cloud computing, in all its forms, isn’t going away. The day might come sooner than some people think when hospitals begin to warm up to storing important data such as patients’ radiology images and records in the cloud. And it appears that EMC, in partnership with Life Image, isn’t waiting around for that day to come.

Tabatabaie tells me that EMC was involved in the last company at which he served as chief executive, Amicas. Boston-based Amicas (NASDAQ:AMCS) provides software for managing digital medical images and other information in hospitals. EMC has had success in equipping hospitals with the infrastructure to support the kinds of image-management systems that Amicas sells. EMC was a venture investor in Amicas, according to one online report. And EMC’s Schwartz served on the Amicas board of directors during four of the six years that Tabatabaie was CEO of the software company, which was between 1999 and 2005. Schwartz is also a member of the board at Life Image, according to federal documents. (I guess that the lesson here for startups is that to hook up with a partner with the industry clout of EMC, it helps to have had success in previous relationships with said partner.)

Even with the EMC partnership, LifeImage faces a growing number of competitors. At next month’s HIMSS conference, San Diego-based healthcare software firm DR Systems says that it plans to publicly unveil its own cloud-based medical image sharing service dubbed “eMix,” a beta version of which has already been deployed at a few medical centers. Also, AccelaRAD, an Atlanta-based provider of medical imaging software, has launched a website called “Seemyradiology.com” to enable patients to share their digital medical images such as CT scans, X-rays, and ultrasound records with their doctors.

While competition in the cloud market is heating up, LifeImage is making progress in gaining customers for the enterprise version of its software, called “Lila” or the LifeImage Local Appliance, part of which was originally developed at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston. The software provides hospitals with software to upload images on incoming patients’ CDs to inboxes on their own IT networks, where physicians can view and share the records. There are now 20 hospitals or healthcare provider organizations that have either signed on to adopt the startup’s software or are about to sign on, including Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, MA, MGH, and Continuum Health Partners in New York. (We covered the economic argument for the lila software in our initial story about LifeImage last year.)

Tabatabaie says that he expects there will be more and more competitors in online image sharing in years to come. LifeImage is trying to foster an open dialogue with its competitors through its Image Sharing Forum, an online community that Tabatabaie says he hopes will lead to the development of common standards among all the vendors in this business. Common standards, he says, are key to enabling image-sharing services to be easily integrated into a multitude of hospital IT systems. Also, he wants people with LifeImage accounts to be able to share and accept images from people with similar online accounts from other vendors, another reason to have the standards in place.

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