A Serial Biotech Entrepreneur Uses Personal Adversity to Launch Big Ideas That Disrupt Healthcare

Life is filled with setbacks, but how many of us fight back with business innovation to solve complex problems especially when it comes to our health or those of our children?   This capacity for insight, disruption and a “Fight Back Mentality” is nowhere more apparent than in the mind and soul of an Adjunct Professor of Research of Genetics at Yale School of Medicine, Dr. Jonathan Rothberg, who is the first person to be named a World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer four separate times.

These accolades are rooted in personal challenges stemming from health scares for his son and daughter respectively who inspired him to reach for the moon.  

The story begins with his infant son unable to breath, who was rushed to a hospital intensive care where he waited anxiously for feedback from the physician on duty.  While the doctors struggled to detect the cause of the issue, he picked up a technology magazine in the waiting room and focused his gaze on the cover picture of an Intel Pentium microprocessor, laced with galaxies of transistors.

DNA Sequencing Patent

In that moment, he said, the genetic nature of his son’s medical issue inspired him to investigate semiconductor chip-based DNA sequencing which he pursued relentlessly from his home basement ultimately leading to the formation of a company called 454.  

This, according to Yale University, “helped (us) understand the mystery behind the disappearance of the honey bee, uncovered a new virus killing transplant patients, and elucidated the extent of human variation.”

Instead of just developing hardware, I want ideas that mix hardware and software, and I’d like it to be able to affect the life of a person.

Rothberg was essentially building technology to discover genetic weak spots in tumors and treat cancer patients with customized drugs.  This includes, according to Forbes, the Personal Genome Machine considered the smallest and cheapest DNA decoder to ever be released commercially in the United States. It can read over 10 million letters of genetic code with inhuman accuracy.   The device, priced at $50,000 means it’s not unrealistic to expect that your local doctor will eventually own one at his medical clinic.

While his son would eventually recover, Dr. Rothberg continued pursuing the various strands of possibilities that were opened up by that experience in the hospital waiting room.  This included an understanding that Artificial Intelligence represented the next Tsunami about to crash over healthcare. His journey would put his name on over 150 patents related to healthcare processes and devices that are astounding in breadth, diversity, conception and application.

As can be expected, financial rewards soon followed, including the sale of 454 Life Sciences to Roche for $140 million which he used to fund some personal delights including “The Circle of Life,” a replica of Stonehenge which he built near his home using 700 tons of granite imported from Scandinavia.  

When he sold another startup, Torrent Systems (heavily driven by the value of Intellectual Property Patents) for over $300 million he had established the enviable reputation of being a freakishly talented entrepreneurial visionary AND academic.

A second health issue, this time related to his daughter, would be the foundation for  launching a new device that arguably forms the basis of his greatest contribution to health care.

A long time sufferer of tuberosclerosis, she was receiving a routine ultrasound scan with her father present. Frowning, Dr. Rothberg,  asked himself why this equipment was so cumbersome and unwieldy. Risking $20 million of his own money, he teamed up with legendary MIT Physicist and Artificial Intelligence pioneer Max Tegmark to to develop an ultrasound device under Butterfly iQ.

Portable Ultrasound Medical Device Patent

As reported in our sister site Medical Device Patenting Blog, the $2,000 device promises to shake up healthcare by surpassing the limitations of rivals such as GE and Fujifilm which rely upon sound waves and instead harnesses the power of the silicon chip, Big Data and Artificial Intelligence residing in remote cloud computing data centers.

Medical experts have poured praise on the device stating that “it’s one of those projects that is going to absolutely change medicine and change how we practice.”

What’s so amazing about this small, 300 gram device is that the ultrasound probe, connected to an iPhone,  will be able to diagnose breast cancer or visualize a fetus without having to visit a big MRI center.

At this stage, Butterfly Networks has accumulated roughly 34  medical patents that cover transmissive imaging, ultrasound inducers, and bipolar pulsers that intersect microchip, cloud and artificial intelligence technologies.

The next phase in the company’s evolution – and Dr. Rothberg’s quest to change the face of medicine – involves the production of tiny ultrasound pills, completely robotic in nature and composition, that can send signals back to computers outside the human body for instant analysis by AI.

Medical Device inventors across America should be watching his journey closely because it promises to dramatically impact an ultrasound market that could exceed $6 billion in revenue per year.  His ability to identify common problems in healthcare including medical devices plus his ability to action solutions demonstrates that no problem is to big tackle or solve.

By partnering with leaders in other sectors such as Max Tegmark, a renowned figure in Artificial Intelligence, Dr. Rothberg established a beachhead through which to pursue additional patents and technologies including those attached to future nanotechnologies such as ingestible ultrasound pills.

His success is being slipstreamed in other areas of the MRI landscape including the famous Los Alamos National Laboratory where researchers are experimenting with ultralow-field portable devices which they say may complement – not replace – large centralized MRI machines found in hospitals and other medical centers.   The military is following their developments closely while pediatric neurosurgeons in less developed nations may also find a strategic use in reaching patients in hard-to-get areas at lower costs.

Rothberg’s driving philosophy as an inventor and entrepreneur seems to rest on “a desire to solve seemingly unsolvable riddles.”   Perhaps all of us should follow his example and find ways to solve big problems with big ideas. 

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