A doctor demonstrates
Kinect PACS startup catches Microsoft's eye
June 07, 2012
by Brendon Nafziger
, DOTmed News Associate Editor
On a recent spring day, the founder of a startup that could allow hands-free manipulation of PACS during surgeries said he was suffering from an unusual complaint: "mentor whiplash."
"You've just got so much information coming so quickly," Jamie Tremaine told DOTmed News by phone from Seattle.
Tremaine had been spending a busy week meeting with tech executives, as his group GestSure Technologies was one of nearly a dozen startups chosen by Microsoft to come to its Pacific Northwest headquarters as part of the Kinect Accelerator program. The three-month program, announced in April, aims to help fledgling companies learn from successful entrepreneur-mentors, acquire technical training and, eventually, meet with potential investors.
All the entrants have one thing in common: they all are businesses built on the back of Microsoft's Kinect, an accessory for the company's Xbox 360 video game console. The device, which has sold 19 million units since its November 2010 release, is in essence a depth-sensing camera, and can recognize arm and hand movements to allow hands-free control of video games.
Originally intended to be simply a peripheral to help Microsoft compete with the Nintendo Wii, popular with older, "non-traditional" gamers, the Kinect has arguably achieved a louder buzz for its non-gaming potential than its actual games; just this week, for instance, British inventors announced they will use the technology to help two tiny satellites dock in space. (Compare that cool development with a recent high-profile video game release, Star Wars Kinect, which muddles along with a lowly 56 score on Metacritic, a website popular with the gaming industry.)
Now with the Accelerator, Microsoft is looking to find more "killer apps" that can help the Kinect find a home in hospitals, schoolrooms and storefronts. For the program, Microsoft said it weeded through close to 500 applications, ultimately selecting 11 to be invited to join the accelerator. In addition to attending the mentoring and training workshops on Microsoft's campus, each participating company nets a $20,000 investment, courtesy of TechStars, a tech accelerator, which then acquires a 6 percent equity stake in the company. Perhaps most importantly, when the program wraps up, on "Demo Day," they get to try to impress visiting investors and studio heads to secure further funding.
The 11 startups have a range of ideas. One, Styku, is creating a program for online fashion retailers, where would-be buyers could scan their bodies at home with the Kinect, to get accurate measurements to ensure the clothes they purchase actually fit. Another, Freak'n Genius, lets users create animations using body movements, all tracked by the Kinect.
And then there's GestSure. The idea behind the startup is simple: surgeons in the operating theater performing complicated procedures often need to consult MRI and CT images. But any time they walk over to the PACS workstation and use the keyboard or mouse to search for scans, they've left the "sterile field" and need to wash their hands and replace their gloves before returning to the patient.
However, with a Kinect-operated workstation, doctors could stay within the sterile field throughout the entire operation, waving their hands in the air to search for images remotely. This would save time for the doctor -- and the patient on the table.
PACS enters the picture
Tremaine, who describes himself as a serial entrepreneur, said he founded his first company while still a college student, studying mechanical engineering at University of Waterloo, in Ontario.
He said he got interested in the Kinect because of his academic research on machine vision. The Kinect, at $150 a pop, is much cheaper than similar technology in the field that was normally priced at thousands of dollars, well out of reach to all but specialists.
"When the Kinect came out, I was like, 'Oh my goodness!'" he said. "I was running around telling everybody the potential for the application."
The connection to PACS emerged during a run with company co-founders Greg Brigley, a computer engineer who worked for the past eight years at Audioscan, a hearing aid testing company, and Dr. Matt Strickland. Tremaine said after he mentioned the Kinect, Strickland, now a surgery resident at University of Toronto, brought up the problem of manipulating images during operations, a hassle he was overly familiar with.
"He was the guy standing outside the sterile field going through the PACS," Tremaine said. "I was like, that's probably solvable, and in three weeks we had a prototype. In three months, we were in the operating room."
Hardware, evidence and markets
Tremaine said the company plans to sell a complete package to customers, including the Kinect, an image processor and a feedback monitor. Once the system's launched, Tremaine estimates a quarter of the surgical markets in the U.S. and Canada could benefit from it either because they use imaging in nearly all surgeries or they use it often enough to justify the investment.
As the team works on getting the product ready, they're also trying to gather clinical evidence for it. A small proof-of-concept test was conducted in Toronto last year, and a paper based on that work is coming out in the Canadian Journal of Surgery, Tremaine said. However, he didn't know when it would be released. "Unfortunately, the academic publication cycle is quite protracted," he said.
Nonetheless, the group has already attended some shows, tagging along to HIMSS this year and RSNA last fall with another Waterloo-based company, Client Outlook, which makes eUnity, a Web-based medical image viewer.
When the program ends
For now, though, Tremaine and Brigley are working through the accelerator, which closes up June 28. (The third co-founder, Strickland, had to go back to his residency in Toronto, Tremaine said.)
Although the $20,000 seed money has obviously been helpful, Tremaine said so far the real value has come from the mentorship -- whiplash and all. "Just meeting people who really know various aspects of the technology, and the business and entrepreneurship," he said. "There's an incredible wealth of knowledge that's being thrown at us."
On the day I called, Tremaine had already been through five meetings, part of a round-the-clock schedule he described as "pretty intense."
"Yesterday, I woke up at 7 a.m., had a 15-minute walk to (campus), and I left work at midnight," he said.