MRI Pioneer, Mayo Clinic Researcher Richard Ehman Honored as Elite U.S. Inventor
Mayo Clinic radiologist, researcher and entrepreneur Richard Ehman, M.D., recognized this month as one of U.S. academia’s top inventors, says that of all his accomplishments as a pioneer in the development of magnetic resonance imaging technology, what matters most to him is how patients have benefited from his creations.
“When I started out in medicine as a doctor, I never really saw myself as being an ‘inventor,’” Ehman told TCB after his selection as one of 175 National Academy of Inventors fellows for 2016, the highest professional distinction accorded solely to academic inventors whose work has been judged to have “made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development and welfare of society.”
“But now, an ‘inventor’ is something that I’m really happy to be. I wanted to take care of patients first of all, and I wanted to contribute to the world in one way or another. But not many people actually set out to be ‘inventors,’ and I certainly didn’t. To me, inventions are just a vehicle to get innovations out into the world where they can do some good.”
Ehman’s inventions have revolutionized the MRI field since the 1980s when he was among the first to understand the potential of adapting advancements in computerized signal processing to medicine, and specifically in employing the “Cooley Tukey algorithm” to digitally reconstruct magnetic images of the human body.
“It turned out that this particular algorithm is one of the most important of our lifetime, not just in medicine, but everywhere,” he said. “It’s actually the basis for modern communications and all kinds of other things. It represents an unsung revolution in engineering that has affected all of us.”
Ehman’s timing was good. When he completed his residency at the University of Calgary in 1983, only a few prototype MRI scanners existed. Since the technology was in its infancy, almost anything he and his contemporaries discovered about how to develop and improve MRIs were counted as “inventions” and patented thusly. As a result, Ehman has accumulated more than 20 patents for his work over the years.
The Canadian-born doctor and scientist joined Mayo in 1985 and is continuing his innovative work as the director of its Advanced Medical Imaging Technology Lab, where in recent years he helped develop “magnetic resonance elastography” (MRE) – the noninvasive detection of hepatic fibrosis in the liver.
Hepatic fibrosis, or a stiffening of the liver tissues, can eventually lead to cirrhosis, which is irreversible and associated with high mortality. Using MRE to assess the elasticity of liver tissue, and thus measuring the risk of hepatic fibrosis, has now been proven to be least as accurate as an invasive liver biopsy, while also being safer, more comfortable and less expensive.
That led to a commercialization spinoff company – Resoundant Inc., headed by Ehman as founder and CEO. He started the company in 2013 with a license for the MRE technology and backing from the Mayo Clinic’s venture capital arm. The startup was an original tenant in the Mayo Business Accelerator business incubator in downtown Rochester, and last year moved into its own quarters at the nearby Premiere Bank Building.
Its patented MRE device is being marketed as an add-on to MRI systems from GE, Philips and Siemens. It consists of a paddle-like apparatus used in conjunction with the scans.
As a member of Mayo’s Board of Trustees and Board of Governors, Ehman played a key role in the move to allow Mayo doctors and researchers to head their own companies as entrepreneurs—part of an effort to establish a thriving bio-business scene in Rochester. Now his own firm is becoming an important player in that effort as it enjoys what he describes as a spike in demand from the big scanner manufacturers for Resoundant’s MRE product.
“At the end of 2016, we had about 800 scanners around that world that had been upgraded to include our technology,” he said. “Now since the beginning of the year there’s been a huge surge of demand, so much so that we’re being challenged in our hardware manufacturing capabilities to keep up. Those 800 systems are just a tiny fraction of what’s out there – there’s 20,000 to 30,000 sites around the world that potentially could be targets for the technology.”
And that would mean thousands of patients suffering from liver disease whose lives could be greatly affected by Ehman the inventor as well as by Ehman the entrepreneur.