The same people who cultivated their skills with 3-D imaging in the video game department at Microsoft have a new challenge in mind. They want to crunch some of medicine’s more complex 3-D images into a form that’s easy to use for the average physician and patient with a Windows-based PC.
That’s the vision of FiatLux Imaging, a Redmond, WA-based healthcare IT startup that has raised about $4.5 million from angel investors since it was founded in 2007. The founders, Quentin DeWolf and John Pella, left Microsoft to spend the last couple years developing visualization software that can take data-rich images from CT and MRI scans, and make it so the average specialist or primary care physician can store, analyze, and share them with patients. I heard about this idea from Max Lyon, the company’s new CEO, and a veteran of a number of medical device, software, and biotech startups over the past 25 years.
The company, whose name translates from Latin as “let there be light,” is still in its early days as a business. CT and MRI scanners are pumping out huge volumes of data-rich diagnostic images. Most of the time, these scans are read by a trained radiologist who uses a $200,000 proprietary 3-D reader program, Lyon says. The radiologist then writes up a basic report that says whether a patient has cancer or a torn knee ligament, sends the report to the referring physician, and stores the image on a CD-ROM. Doing things this way means that the average doc often doesn’t have access to the same image as the radiologist.
FiatLux hopes to make all this data much more accessible, by offering a free version of its visualization software that doctors and patients can download on a PC. By allowing doctors to test-drive this system for a while for free, FiatLux hopes that specialists will find it useful for planning surgeries, and that it will help them show patients what they intend to do when they cut out that tumor or repair that ligament. It also might be useful for medical students and residents studying anatomy and patient cases, the company says.
“It’s difficult for physicians to get these images, read them, and know what’s going on with their patient,” Lyon says. “The founders wanted to do something more altruistic, something that would be helpful for humanity.”
The technology is newly available for download—you can check it out yourself here—but the business model is clearly on Version 2.0. The original idea was to sell a proprietary software program under an annual license to radiologists. But radiologists didn’t really need it, Lyon says. “The real need is with specialty physicians, general practitioners, and patients,” he says.
The new business plan is to go with a “freemium” model, Lyon says. The Visualize Free program will be available free to users in the beginning so they can kick the tires, and over time active users will pay fees, Lyon says. By going the free route, FiatLux hopes to build up a big base of users within a number of medical niches, like cardiology, orthopedics, oncology, and neurosurgery, Lyon says. Once the audience is assembled, and engaged, FiatLux also hopes to sell sponsorships to Big Pharma or medical device companies that want to get their brand in front of those specialists, Lyon says.
Of course, FiatLux isn’t the only group of people who want to democratize the storage, analysis, and sharing of CT and MRI images. Lexington, MA-based Able Software markets a product called 3-D Doctor, and it has been around a long time, and boasts a long list of users like Massachusetts General Hospital, the FDA, and M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, TX. Another program comes from an open-source competitor called OsiriX.
One key point of differentiation, Lyon says, is that a comparable 3-D Doctor program costs $1,800 to $2,000 a year—presumably more than FiatLux will cost. And OsiriX is made to work with Apple devices, not Windows PCs, Lyon says, which are much more common in the medical industry.
“There is no free viewer for a Windows-based system,” Lyon says, other than the one being offered now by FiatLux.
Since the free download came out in November, FiatLux has attracted about 85 registered users and 2,000 downloads, Lyon says. [Correction: 5:04 pm Pacific, 3/23/10–an earlier version said there were 200 downloads, but Lyon informed me he misspoke before]. It didn’t sound like very much for a free product, although Lyon insists FiatLux is still early in its effort to introduce the product. He’s hopeful that physicians will find it easy to use, that it will help them explain what they are doing with their patients, and that word will spread among the docs.
I didn’t get a very detailed sense of how big the market potential might be for a business like FiatLux, partly because it’s unclear at what point the free test-drive period would end, and when the subscription would kick in for heavy users, and how much that might cost. But Lyon notes that a large portion of the 800,000 physicians in the U.S. might find such a program useful.
The business plan has been in place for some time, and Lyon says his job is mainly to execute on it. He also hopes to raise $2 million to $3 million in a Series C financing round. If they can get that money, he says, who knows how many physicians and patients will want to download the program? “We want to open up these images to the non-radiology specialty physicians,” Lyon says. “We think we can make a whole world of data accessible to them that really isn’t today.”