A superstar ex-Facebook and Google exec is trying to upend a $24 billion industry with devices that spot disease sooner — and she’s already testing it on animals

  • A brush with death inspired ex-Facebook and Google executive Mary Lou Jepsen to embark on her latest initiative as the founder of a San Francisco-based startup called Openwater.
  • Jepsen is working on devices that are akin to portable, miniature MRIs which could do everything from observing the effects of a medication in real time to monitoring a breast cancer tumour to decide if surgery is necessary.
  • Her startup is currently running experiments on rats in a lab in the San Francisco area, she told Business Insider.

Former Google and Facebook executive Mary Lou Jepsen was in her 20s when she went home to die. What began with terrible headaches developed into fatigue so severe she had to use a wheelchair. She’d lost control of movement in half of her face.

It took several months and a handful of doctors before someone recommended that Jepsen get an MRI – a procedure that that lets clinicians peek inside the brain, but that can cost thousands of dollars and is performed exclusively on a two-ton machine in a special room, often at a hospital. The pricey devices use radio waves and strong magnets to create pictures of organs and structures inside the body.

Thanks to Jepsen’s MRI, she was diagnosed with a deadly brain tumour just in time to save her life.

Jepsen’s brush with death drove her to create a startup called Openwater.

Come see Mary Lou Jepsen speak at Business Insider’s Ignition conference, December 3 & 4 in New York.

Its mission is to make portable, miniature imaging machines that everyone can afford – machines that she dreams will one day harbour the power to do everything from detect tumours in any organ to allow for brain-to-brain communication. If it works, her technology could disrupt the MRI market, where patients spend roughly $US24 billion a year on scans, according to an estimate from healthcare research firm The Advisory Board Company.

Brain scan MRI
Brain activity measured with an MRI. shutterstock/MriMan

Openwater’s existing technology uses a combination of infrared, cell-penetrating laser beams plus two chips – one a camera and one ultrasonic – to look inside the brain and body, Jepsen explained to Business Insider in an interview on the sidelines of a conference held by media group Techonomy in Half Moon Bay, California.

The company is currently performing experiments on rats with prototype versions of its technology at a lab space in the Bay Area, said Jepsen. Already, the images they are able to create are more accurate and better defined than what you’d see with an MRI, she claimed.

Although she has not yet offered a public demonstration of the technology, the company’s investors and board of directors suggest strong scientific potential.

Jeff Huber, the vice chairman and founding CEO of $US1.6 billion cancer-detecting Silicon Valley startup Grail, serves on Openwater’s board of directors; Brook Byers, a founding partner of venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins (which has funded Genentech) is an Openwater investor, along with Nicholas Negroponte, the co-founder of the MIT Media Lab and Michael McCullough, who directs the evolution and human behaviour lab at the University of Miami.

Jepsen’s ultimate goal is to get her product in people’s homes, where they could be used to observe the effects of a medication in real time or help monitor the progression of a disease like cancer.

“I want everyone to be able to buy these machines in the drug store next to the blood pressure cuff,” Jepsen said.

From a storied career at Facebook and Google to her own startup

Mary lou jepsen
Jepsen spoke about her device at the 2017 Rock Health Summit, but remained vague on details. Rock Health

Jepsen pitched her project to tech giants Google and Facebook before deciding to strike out on her own. She said the CEOs of each company expressed an interest in the idea at first but ultimately had her focus on other projects in virtual reality and augmented reality.

Her roles at both companies were high-level positions that were heavy on engineering: at Google, Jepsen worked as the head of the company’s display division within its secretive “X” division and reported directly to Google co-founder Sergey Brin. At Facebook, Jepsen served as the company’s executive director of engineering and the head of display technologies at its virtual reality arm Oculus.

But Jepsen, an engineer with a PhD in optical sciences from Brown University, wanted to do more.

“I like video games just as much as the next person,” Jepsen told Business Insider, but their capacity to help people and make a difference is limited, she said.

So last summer, Jepsen announced she was leaving Facebook to create her own company, called Openwater.

‘You don’t have to biopsy if you can monitor’

Last year, Jepsen described Openwater’s device as a new imaging technology that could help “cure diseases” and could even be worn like a hat to see inside the brain. Such a device could help researchers better understand complex organs like the brain, where some aspects of mental illnesses like depression can currently be observed using an MRI.

For the process to work, timing is everything, Jepsen explained: the ultrasonic pings are emitted first so that they arrive at the same time as the infrared light, which is turned on shortly after. The light changes colour as it moves past various structures in the brain or body – kind of like how the police siren on a cop car changes pitch as it drives past you.

And the resulting image, which is produced through a combination of the light and the ultrasonic pings, will be able to detect the presence of a tumour, Jepsen said.

Jepsen’s company is also working with a nonprofit organisation called the Focused Ultrasound Foundation, based in Charlottesville, Virginia. to explore the possibility of someday using the technology for non-invasive surgery using sound waves, she added.

On Monday, Jepsen described one potential scenario for someone with breast cancer. First, her mini-MRI could likely diagnose the disease earlier because MRIs have 10 times the resolution of mammograms, she said. Currently, MRIs are recommended in addition to mammograms only for women with a high risk of breast cancer.

But in addition, if the device could be worn (for example, as part of a bra) it could be used to monitor the disease and any tumours, allowing the patient and her clinician to decide on surgery only when it was medically necessary, such as if the tumour began to grow.

“You don’t have to biopsy if you can monitor,” Jepsen said.

This story was updated with a new estimate of the MRI market based on estimates from healthcare research firm The Advisory Board.