During the presentation, two “independent” radiologists praised the work done by Nanox. They commented on both the speed and accuracy of the images taken, especially when examining a 3D image of a chest x-ray. The pair said the larger number of tubes – the Nanox Arc has six independent x-ray tubes that can be used at different amplitudes – could make it easier to spot small lesions and tumors.
These tubes are the source of Nanox innovation; 10 centimeter cylinders using “cold cathode” technology. A sextet of these tubes sits inside the ring, while a mechanical bed pulls patients through, allowing the machine to scan their entire body. Nanox says the system could offer skeletal X-rays, as well as computerized tomography (CT) scans, at the same time. After a minute of processing, the data is used to create a 3D scrolling model of a person’s body, allowing professionals to see both soft tissue and the skeleton.
Nanox’s story begins in the wreckage of the doomed Sony Field Emission Display project, which began in 1998. Sony was looking to build high definition televisions that avoided the (then common) issues of dead pixels, flicker, and burnout associated with LCD and plasma televisions. His solution took the basic concept of an old cathode ray television set – an electron gun firing at a phosphorescent screen – and updated it. Rather than a single electron gun shooting at a screen, Sony built a MEMS chip that wrapped millions of tiny electron guns in a silicon wafer.
The first demonstrations of the technology, which offered high definition and reduced risk of dead pixels, were promising. But Sony’s expensive but potentially superior technology has been usurped by advances in (increasingly inexpensive) LCD / LED TVs. In 2009, Sony killed the project after spending nearly a billion dollars on R&D and then selling the technology (and the team) to Japanese businessman Hitoshi Masuya. He recruited Powermat founder Poliakine to join and lead the company, which works on adapting technology for medical imaging.
A traditional “hot cathode” x-ray works by passing an electric current through a filament, which heats up. The filament, trapped in a vacuum, projects electrons towards an anode, and when they collide, high-energy photons (x-rays) are released. The tube itself is leaded except for one opening, and this is how these photons are directed at a person. Some parts of the human body are more permeable to X-rays than others, so capturing what passes on photographic film allows the radiographer to see what is going on inside the person. One drawback is that heating the filament takes a lot of energy and time, and the tube has to be replaced regularly.
Creating a “cold cathode” system without the need for heating has been the goal of several companies for years. (The first x-rays used cold cathodes, called Crookes tubes, but they have been shown to be unreliable). Recently, researchers have tried to construct cold cathodes with field emitters made from carbon nanotubes that act like an electron gun. But no company has yet brought these systems to the market – we have found a 2019 press release from a company called Meiden but the trail then stops cold. This is where Sony’s “billion dollar” field emission display technology comes in, because it builds on existing technology. It already acts as a basic electron gun and can be turned on and off with the flip of a switch, with no need for heating.
Not everyone is as enthusiastic about the company as some of their cheerleaders are right now. Following the company’s decision to go public (IPO) in August, analyst and short-selling specialist Andrew Left got involved. The character behind Citron Research, also a longtime Tesla critic, said Nanox was a “complete stuffing. Left added that the company was another Theranos and its claimed client list was “bogus.”
Poliakine described Left’s claims as “bullshit” and “a lie”, adding that his goal was to deliver the finished product. It is clear, however, that a demonstration of the technology in front of a panel of eminent radiologists would help dismiss these claims. (Engadget contacted Andrew Left for comment, and at the time of publication had not received a response). It is only when Nanox’s hardware is used, or at least tested, in the real world by independent reviewers, that we will have a clear picture of its effectiveness and reliability.
Nanox does not plan to target hospitals and large healthcare companies, but rather seeks to get its goods to underserved areas. The business model is also a little different. It won’t charge for beds, which Poliakine says cost just $ 14,000 to build and ship, compared to about $ 300,000 for a basic CT scanner. Instead, it’ll loan them out to remote clinics, much the same way you can loan out an office printer to a large corporation and charge $ 14 for each scan taken. The fee would also cover cloud storage and the ability to use an AI medical analysis service. A number of companies are work on AI this will help doctors find abnormalities on x-rays.
Nanox is now looking to the first hardware deployment, which is slated for early 2021. The company plans to install a handful of beds in the first few months, but plans to hit a target of 15,000 units in the coming months. years. Once clinics judge the value of the technology, we’ll see if Nanox’s goal is ambitious or not.