Introducing Xconomy Voices (Podcast), Episode 1: Mary Lou Jepsen

Xconomy National — 

It’s always been Xconomy’s mission to reach audiences—both here on our website, and at our many live events around the country—with deep insights into the innovation process, divined from experts embedded in the world’s most important hubs of high-tech entrepreneurship.

And now we’re doing that in one more medium: podcasting.

I’m thrilled to be collaborating with my former colleagues at Xconomy on a new interview show called Xconomy Voices. Each episode brings you a timely, compelling, 15-minute conversation with a leading entrepreneur, innovator, or investor from one of Xconomy’s eleven cities and regions. We ask them what they’re working on, what they’re excited about, and why they believe their product, idea, or company is poised to take over the world.

For our launch episode, we couldn’t have asked for a more exciting guest than Mary Lou Jepsen, an entrepreneur and former executive at Google and Facebook.

Jepsen is a fearsome samurai when it comes to the design and manufacturing of electronics, especially displays. Her latest venture is Openwater, a San Francisco-based startup that’s using LCDs—the same technology in our smartphone screens—to see inside the human body.

Jepsen says making medical imaging more accessible has been one of her dreams since the 1990s, when an MRI revealed a life-threatening tumor in her brain. Surgeons successfully removed the tumor, but Jepsen saw that a cheaper, more portable system for peering inside the brain could help millions of people in underserved regions.

A few years ago she realized that it might finally be possible to match the resolution of an MRI image using nothing more than near-infrared light from LCDs and some clever math adapted from the field of holography. The light can penetrate skin and bone, and Jepsen’s algorithms can sort out the scattered reflections to reveal structural changes.

Openwater is leveraging Jepsen’s understanding of the electronics manufacturing supply chain to develop a wearable, low-power, low-cost LCD mesh. According to Jepsen, the company’s devices might take the form of a ski hat, bandage, or bra.

“The implications are pretty profound for the billion people in the world that live with debilitating brain disease,” Jepsen says. Even in developed countries, these patients might get an MRI study only once a year. “The move to having a wearable with a continuous diagnostic could be akin to the transformation of diabetes care,” now that patients can buy off-the-shelf systems to measure their glucose or insulin levels continuously, she says.

I’ve been following Jepsen’s work ever since she joined with Nicholas Negroponte to start the One Laptop Per Child project in 2005. Under her technical leadership, and using a special sunlight-readable display she invented, OLPC began mass-producing inexpensive, low-power laptops for education by 2007.

Later Jepsen founded Pixel Qi, which commercialized some of the display technologies she developed at OLPC. In 2013 she joined Google X, the company’s secret skunk works, to work on display-related “moon shot” projects. And in 2015 she moved to the Oculus division of Facebook to work on virtual reality systems as executive director of engineering.

Jepsen said the basic technical ideas behind Openwater’s wearable imaging system came to her even before she joined Google. But it was working at the tech giants that gave her the freedom she needed to start Openwater.

“I think everybody knows Google and Facebook pay really well, at the level I was at,” Jepsen says. “So I was actually able to make decisions that I haven’t been able to make for the last 20 years. Because I had a brain tumor, I needed health insurance, which meant I needed a job that had health insurance. And now I don’t. For me that really changed the equation.”

One more thing: Jepsen says Openwater’s technology might eventually lead to a limited form of “telepathy,” whereby a computer could see what people are thinking about by looking inside their brains. (Privacy alert… but it’s still a ways off.)

To learn more about all this, listen to our conversation above—or check out the full interview transcript here.

You can subscribe to Xconomy Voices on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also follow the show on SoundCloud.