SonoSite crams greater power into smaller packages

January 8, 2003

Focus seeks top performance at cut-rate pricesSonoSite (Bothell, WA) may have the most recognizable corporate mission of any company in medical imaging. Its commitment to miniaturization, exemplified by the RSNA meeting debut of

Focus seeks top performance at cut-rate prices

SonoSite (Bothell, WA) may have the most recognizable corporate mission of any company in medical imaging. Its commitment to miniaturization, exemplified by the RSNA meeting debut of its 2.7-pound iLook, is the cornerstone of the ultrasound upstart. It was founded in April 1998 as a spinoff to a then-fiercely independent ATL.

What is new, however, is the company's interest in putting low-cost, handheld ultrasound systems in the hands of primary-care physicians. Ultrasound was to have been a first-look instrument, like the stethoscope, that could be used to confirm good health or spot signs of distress. But the cost of the scanners ($15,000 plus) and the lack of reimbursement (if an abnormality was found, the patient was referred to a radiologist for another ultrasound exam) got in the way.

Faced with these obstacles, the company began several years ago to promote the use of its equipment by specialists already familiar with sonography. The strength of the technology--compact, high-quality imaging--became the key to sales.

Today, SonoSite has a worldwide installed base of more than 10,000 systems, according to David Willis, director of product marketing and the clinical business unit. Most of these are in the U.S., Western Europe, and Japan.

Sales are expanding with the company's latest introductions. Several hundred of the iLook series have been sold since its Aug. 19 launch, according to Willis. The $13,000 iLook 15 was designed for quick-look diagnostics, including basic abdominal and cardiac imaging, by radiologists as well as surgeons and specialists of emergency medicine. The $15,000 iLook 25 was designed for vascular imaging. Both are being marketed primarily to hospitals and are being sold by SonoSite's direct sales force or distributors.

Willis attributes this success in large part to innovation. For example, iLook was engineered not only for high-quality imaging but durability. The handheld product can withstand a 1-meter crash to the floor without sustaining damage.

Rough treatment is inevitable for any piece of equipment leaving the relative stability of carts for a physician's hand. But to achieve its ultimate goal--becoming a provider of premium ultrasound systems--SonoSite must remain focused on image quality.

"In that regard, we're actually moving in two directions," Willis said. "One is to go smaller, with image quality similar to that of larger systems yet even more affordable. The other is to take features found on high-end, expensive systems and put them on systems that are much more affordable."

SonoSite plans eventually to build products that can fit in a clinician's lab coat pocket, said Cam Pollock, SonoSite marketing director.

"We see radiologists walking into a patient's room with a tool as ubiquitous as a stethoscope and doing things such as checking for fluid in the chest and checking the heart," he said.

Willis went a step further.

"We think the direction we're going will someday allow us to get truly high end image quality in a small box--at an affordable price," he said.