A Tucson startup aims to make medical imaging more accessible by adapting smartphones as inexpensive, mobile ultrasound systems.

Tucson native and University of Arizona graduate Courtney Williams co-founded the company a few years ago after her sister was bedridden for months with a difficult pregnancy.

“She is healthy and happy today, as is my nephew, but the experience made me wonder if she had been in a different place without access to medical technology, what possibly could have happened,” Williams said.

She talked about the experience with longtime friend Jose Juarez, who shared concerns over lack of rural health care in his native Argentina, noting that 50 percent of the world doesn’t have access to ultrasounds.

Williams, who was working full time as an analyst in the energy industry, then seized upon the idea of using the ubiquitous cellphone as a solution.

“Cellphones are the great equalizer of our time. There are more cellphones than toilets, and mobile devices are multiplying faster than people,” she said. “So the way to really equalize health outcomes is to leverage this amazing tool we all have in our pockets.”

Together, Williams and Juarez founded Emagine Solutions Technology LLC to develop and commercialize the system. Williams is the company’s CEO, while Juarez is chief technology officer.

They assembled a small team that developed software to allow use of common ultrasound probes, or transducers, with smartphones to view, save and transmit images.

In 2017, Emagine became a tenant of the Arizona Center for Innovation, a business incubator that offers support and mentoring at the UA Tech Park on South Rita Road.

Now, the company is developing its VistaScan ultrasound system in partnership with an undisclosed ultrasound equipment maker and is beta-testing its system with physicians.

Though Williams is reluctant to divulge details such as compatible phone platforms as the technology is still evolving, the aim is to allow the system to work with with common smartphones and tablet computers.

A number of portable ultrasound machines are on the market, including some handheld models, but they cost thousands of dollars and use their own proprietary control and display devices.

Williams said the VistaScan system will cost about one-tenth the cost of traditional, cart-based ultrasound machines.

And while it may not have all the functionality of larger machines, some of which can use specialized probes, it will be a valuable tool for early diagnostics, she said.

“We are moving towards handheld to find quick answers, to rule things out quickly, before moving to those larger machines,” Williams said.

Though the technology was not developed at the UA, Williams earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing and international business from the UA’s Eller College of Management in 2006 before getting an MBA at the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale.

Williams said the Arizona Center for Innovation has helped get Emagine on the right startup track.

“It’s been a great partner for us in moving our startup forward,” Williams said, singling out AZCI mentor Steve Wood as “an amazing resource.”

In 2017, Emagine also went through the Thryve program, a former federal-grant-supported program at Startup Tucson aimed at helping startup companies grow rapidly and create jobs.

“The Thryve program was excellent; they had excellent instructors who were really committed to the success of startups in the community,” Williams said.

Emagine also won some seed money and attention at business-pitch competitions.

In 2017, the company won the grand prize and “people’s choice” awards at the Cox Business Get Started Arizona event at the TenWest Festival in Tucson, netting $26,000 in prize money.

More recently, the company was a finalist at Venture Madness, a Phoenix business-pitch competition sponsored by the nonprofit startup group Invest Southwest.

For now, Williams said, Emagine continues to refine its technology as it beta-tests its platform with physicians, who can sign up to beta-test the VistaScan system via a link on Emagine’s website, vistascan.co.

“If there are local physicians who want to beta-test the platform, I would love for them to reach out to us,” Williams said.

ROCHE BREAST CANCER TEST Approved by FDA

Roche Tissue Diagnostics won Federal Drug Administration approval of a companion test to identify breast cancer patients who would benefit from specific therapy including the first approved immunotherapy drug for breast cancer.

The company said the Ventana PD-L1 Assay2 — developed at Roche Tissue Diagnostics in Oro Valley — is the first companion diagnostic to help identify triple-negative breast cancer patients eligible for treatment with the Roche cancer immunotherapy drug Tecentriq, recently approved for breast cancer by the FDA, plus the Celgene chemotherapy drug Abraxane.

A diagnosis of triple-negative breast cancer means that the three most common proteins associated with breast cancer growth are not expressed on the tumor.

Each year, about 300,000 women worldwide are diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, an aggressive disease with limited treatment options that represents 15 percent of all breast cancer cases, Roche said.

Launched in 2016, the Ventana PD-L1 assay is the main diagnostic test within the Tecentriq clinical development program and was used to enroll and classify patients in Tecentriq clinical trials.

RAYTHEON WINS HYPERSONIC WORK

Tucson-based Raytheon Missile Systems will continue its work on hypersonic missiles under a new contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

The company — Tucson’s biggest private employer and Arizona’s biggest tech company — was recently awarded a $63.3 million DARPA contract to further develop the Tactical Boost Glide hypersonic weapons program.

The joint DARPA and Air Force effort includes a critical design review, a key step in fielding the technology, Raytheon said.

A tactical-range boost glide weapon is able to hit hypersonic speeds — greater than Mach 5 or five times the speed of sound — with a rocket that accelerates its payload, which then separates and glides unpowered to its destination, according to DARPA.

Raytheon also has been developing an air-breathing hypersonic missile under a DARPA contract, and rival Lockheed Martin is under contract to develop both air-breathing and boost-glide concepts.

Raytheon executives have said hypersonics represent a key growth opportunity for the company as the U.S. scrambles to develop them in response to ongoing research programs by Russia and China.

Contact senior reporter David Wichner at dwichner@tucson.com or 573-4181. On Twitter: @dwichner.

Senior reporter covering business and technology for the Arizona Daily Star/Tucson.com