CARLSBAD — Lying in a prone position while isolated inside of a magnetic tube for 45 minutes to undergo a scan of internal organs can be jarring and claustrophobic for patients.
Enter Spencer Howe, who along with his former business partner, saw an opportunity 10 years ago to make magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) a more comfortable experience.
The duo started Global Imaging Source, a medical parts brokerage that developed MRIaudio, a company using fiber-optics to provide noise-canceling technology, audio (music, podcasts and streaming radio) and wireless communications between patients and laboratory technicians during an MRI scan.
After his partner left Global Imaging Source, Howe took sole ownership of MRIaudio, but the early days in his parents’ garage were tough, according to Howe. Despite teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, Howe took MRIaudio from humble beginnings, generating just $40,000 in revenue his first year, to a projected revenue of $3.5 million this year.
Howe attended several trade shows that helped him land some major clients, including Sharp & Children’s MRI Center in San Diego, Scripps Memorial Hospital, UC San Diego, and Rayus Radiology — all of which purchased multiple audio systems. Howe also partnered with GE Healthcare, tripling MRIaudio’s business “overnight.”
In total, MRIaudio has sold more than 3,500 systems, Howe said.
“As an MRI tech of over 25 years, I can tell you the music and intercom situation for patients and techs has been nothing but a hassle,” said Jennifer Berry, a former MRI manager at UCSD. “This is the first system to address all the issues and the sound is fantastic.”
One of the biggest hurdles facing the Carlsbad-based company was figuring out how to bring audio into an MRI scanner loaded with magnets that don’t play well with other metals or soundwaves. But Howe and his team solved the problem by creating a nonmagnetic, pneumatic sound system connected to a speaker box that funnels sound through an air tube into plastic headphones.
Howe said it’s the equivalent of talking through a garden hose. Through this technology, the company was also able to produce lower frequencies (bass), improving sound quality by masking the noise emitted from the MRI machine.
“It’s sound pressure going through an air tube,” Howe said. “A lot of things can happen when you put metal into an MRI. It has the potential to burn a patient and showing up on the images, along with radiofrequency.”
Today, the company is looking beyond audio to the very real possibility of offering video capabilities to MRI patients. While business slowed last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic slowing sales and preventing personnel from meeting in-person with clients, this year’s business is booming. And while it’s a great sign, there is a new challenge facing the medical tech company — supply chain.
As of Sept. 21, there were 132 cargo ships at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Dozens of container ships were anchored or adrift off the coast because of a backup in the ports, according to USA Today. Ships have had to wait at least seven days to enter the port and cargo is taking at least another 10 days to be offloaded before landing on delivery trucks.
“Everyone we talk to wants at least one system yesterday,” Howe said. “It’s kind of panic mode, like with toilet paper.”