Biomedical Entrepreneur Jonathan Rothberg Is Up to Something Again

Photo: 4Combinator

It ususally doesn’t count for much when entrepreneurs declare that their new company will change the world—although they can’t tell you how, or when, or actually any details at all. But Jonathan Rothberg has two things going for him that make his vague proclamations about his new company, Butterfly Network, noteworthy: money and a track record. 

Rothberg announced yesterday that Butterfly Network has raised $100 million to create a device/system/something-or-other that will “transform medical imaging and non-invasive surgery by leveraging advances in semiconductors, deep learning, and cloud computing.” That’s not chump change. 

And then there’s Rothberg’s backstory. The serial entrepreneur first founded a company called 454 Life Sciences and invented a new technique for cheap and fast genome sequencing, which made it practical to scan the entire genome of an individual. He sold the company to Roche for $155 million. Then Rothberg founded Ion Torrent and invented an even cheaper and faster sequencing machine that IEEE Spectrum covered a few years ago. He sold that company to Life Technologies for $725 million. 

So Butterfly Network might be worth watching. In a conversation with Spectrum, Rothberg said that the company’s mysterious device will offer fast, cheap, and high-resolution medical images. The images will be stored on the cloud, where the company’s mysterious artificial intelligence program will go through them and begin to learn all about radiology.

“There are AI techniques that can keep up with the information without getting bottlenecked,” Rothberg says. “So you have services that make humans more efficient, whether they’re radiologists or genetic counselors.” Over time, Rothberg says, the system could grow proficient enough to do much of the doctor’s work. “There are only 38 radiologists in Uganda,” he says. “Nobody will complain if we make them 1000 times as efficient.”  

Butterfly Network is one of four companies that Rothberg is nurturing at his new incubator, 4Combinator. Rothberg is speaking to the press, apparently, because he’s on a hiring spree and wants to spread the word. “I need the best and the brightest,” Rothberg said, adding that he hopes to steal talent not only from tech companies like Google, Baidu, Facebook, and Netflix (!), but also from finance firms. “I want to get the smartest people in Goldman Sachs to come do something else with their lives,” he says. 


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