When you see doctors scrambling to save someone in a TV melodrama like “ER” or “Grey’s Anatomy,” there’s a good chance one of their key gadgets came from a real-life crew of engineers in the Seattle area. This region has played a central role in making ultrasound technology one of medicine’s most fundamental tools for looking inside the body to see what’s going right or wrong, without having to lift a scalpel.
The use of sound waves to produce clear images of a developing fetus, or of a heart that’s failing to pump, has its roots in pioneering work at the University of Washington. More specifically, it was the UW Bioengineering department in the 1960s, under the leadership of the late Robert Rushmer, with key contributions by his student Donald Baker. The region now has about 5,000 people working at more than a dozen companies in the ultrasound business, according to UW bioengineering professor Yongmin Kim. Engineers and scientists at these companies are working on a wide range of applications. These include high-resolution images for diagnosing heart trouble, or higher-intensity uses like breaking up fat tissue or cauterizing battlefield wounds.
We have counted 15 companies in the area, most of which reside on the Eastside. It’s not a comprehensive list, so if we have overlooked anyone, please leave us a comment or shoot us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
AcousTx (Seattle, WA)
AcousTx spun off from Therus in 2002, with a different application for ultrasound to stop bleeding. It’s called high intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU), which it is trying to develop for the U.S. military to stop bleeding with a lightweight portable machine on the battlefield.
Ekos (Bothell, WA)
This company introduced the first commercial system for using ultrasound to break up blood clots in 2005. A newer product helps doctors infuse fluids, like clot-busting thrombolytic drugs, into patients.
Liposonix (Bothell, WA)
Founded in 1999 to use ultrasound as a non-invasive technique for body sculpting, essentially getting ride of unwanted body fat. Its product is sold in Europe, and it was acquired in June by Scottsdale, AZ-based Medicis for $150 million, with potential for another $150 million in milestone payments. CEO Jens Quistgaard, a former chief technologist at Sonosite, says the unit maintains operating autonomy and 45 local employees.
Pacific Bioscience Labs (Bellevue, WA)
This company was founded in 2001 by David Giuliani, who previously started Optiva, the developer of the Sonicare toothbrush. His latest creation is the Clarisonic, a tool that it bills as “the dermatologist’s secret to silky smooth, radiantly fresh skin.”
Philips Healthcare (Bothell, WA)
This is a division of the Netherlands-based electronics giant Philips that was originally founded as ATL Ultrasound. The Philips division makes cart-bound ultrasound machines used for taking images of developing fetuses, diagnosing heart abnormalities, and helping anesthesia doctors perform nerve blocks.
Philips Sonicare (Snoqualmie, WA)
The Dutch electronics giant has another big local play in ultrasound, with the Sonicare toothbrush. It bought this operation from Snoqualmie-based Optiva in August 2000, a time when it Optiva had about 600 employees and an estimated $175 million in annual sales.
Physiosonics (Seattle, WA)
This company, founded in 2000, is developing UW ultrasound technologies for neurological monitoring. It received a $4 million venture investment in June, led by Johnson & Johnson Development.
Siemens Medical (Issaquah, WA)
Competes with Philips and its ultrasound machines for obstetrician/gynecology practices, cardiology, and radiology.
Sonosite (Bothell, WA)
This company spun off from ATL Ultrasound in 1998, and has been led by CEO Kevin Goodwin since the start. Sonosite (NASDAQ: SONO) has 600 employees worldwide who develop and sell lightweight, portable ultrasound machines. The technology has its origins in work for the U.S. military to get these tools on the battlefield, and the company still sells some to Uncle Sam, although it’s a small piece of its overall market.
Spencer Technologies (Seattle)
Founded to commercialize discoveries by radiologist Merrill Spencer, this company has created what it calls “transcranial” ultrasound for the brain. It’s designed to detect blood clots in the brain.
Therus (Seattle, WA)
This company was founded in 1998, and is developing ultrasound to cauterize punctures of the femoral artery, a common point of entry for doctors who do a lot of minimally-invasive cardiology procedures like angioplasty. It was founded (and is still led) by president David Perozek, a former president of ATL Ultrasound.
Ultreo (Redmond, WA)
This startup was formed in 2003 by UW neurosurgeon Pierre Mourad and Jack Gallagher, a founder and former president of Optiva, to develop a different kind of ultrasonic toothbrush.
UST (Everett, WA)
This is yet another UW spin-off, with roots in technology developed by Lawrence Crum of the Applied Physics laboratory. It is working on using ultrasound to stop bleeding.
Verasonics (Redmond, WA)
This ultrasound software maker was founded in 2002, and reorganized in 2005. It has a partnership with PhysioSonics
Verathon (Bothell, WA)
This company, which jazzed up its name a few years ago after originally going by Diagnostic Ultrasound, was founded in 1984 by electrical engineer Gerald McMorrow. It now has about 275 employees worldwide. It makes a product called BladderScan, a portable ultrasound scanner to measure bladder volume to diagnose a variety of ailments.
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