Bringing ideas to life: Making virtual autopsy a reality

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When Thomas Edison uttered his famous edict, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”, he may have been referring to innovation. Having the idea (inspiration) is the easy part, making it work (innovation) is where the real drudgery comes in.

The idea of conducting an autopsy digitally or virtually is not new; it dates back to early 2003 when the British Museum needed a means to autopsy a 3,000-year-old mummy, named Nesperennub, without compromising the remains. The museum contacted the University of Bern’s Institute of Forensic Medicine in Switzerland for its digital autopsy system, Virtopsy. But finding it inadequate for its needs, it contacted Silicon Graphics International (SGI) to determine if an alternative option was available. At that time, SGI was a leader in workstation visualization.

It was then that Mathavan Chandran, CEO of Infovalley Group Sdn Bhd, ran into Bob Bishop, the founder and chairman of SGI. Bishop was attending the 2003 MSC International Advisory Panel (IAP) Meeting at the Putrajaya International Convention Centre where he was one of the 18 IAP members while Mathavan was a participant at the IAP Meeting for the Multimedia Super Corridor.

“He had gotten detached from the contingent. So we had a chat and I introduced my company to him. He then challenged us [Infovalley] to help develop a better digital autopsy program,” Mathavan told [email protected] in Infovalley’s Malaysia headquarters at the Mines Business Park on May 21. “We both agreed that buying a bigger computer wasn’t so much the solution as  writing a better software programme,” he says.When formally contacted by  SGI Australia, Mathavan accepted the challenge. “Part of the problem was that the Virtopsy team consisted of a team of forensic scientists headed by Dr Michael Thali, and the SGI team comprised engineers. Infovalley’s advantage was that we had a development team that had software engineers, medical doctors and a forensic pathologist, our Chief Medical Officer, Dr Pramod Bagali,” explains Mathavan.

Mathavan founded Infovalley in late 1999 as a bioinformatics company.  Today it has branched out into biotechnology and medical informatics. While the creation of custom-made bioinformatics software remains the main revenue stream for Infovalley, Mathavan is confident that the funds invested in R&D today will pay off in the long run, producing products with a recurring revenue stream, like its digital autopsy system. Last year, the MSC-status company recorded a revenue of RM25 million.

While Infovalley’s work was not in time for the British Museum’s exhibition in 2004, its success led Bishop to encourage the company to further develop the system so it could be used for medical autopsies. Mathavan says, “The truth is, the digital autopsy used for the British Museum exhibition was nowhere near what we’re capable of now, but it had the entire forensic faculty excited back then. Fast forward to today and all the technology is already available, from the CT scanners to the visualising equipment. Our contribution is the software needed for mapping the human body, based on millions of CT scan slices and creating a realistic, accurate, high-definition, 3D fully manipulatable image.” Their software is awaiting patent approval.

“Using this software, forensic pathologists are able to scan the entire body, still in its body bag, and investigate the body without resorting to invasive procedures. If they have doubts about the conclusions, then they can, of course, go straight to traditional autopsy methods,” says Mathavan.

The real breakthrough for the project came when Infovalley’s digital autopsy system was awarded a pilot project in Hospital Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia by the Ministry of Health, plus a RM5 million grant from the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation to build a digital autopsy unit at the end of 2005. The unit, which was completed in April 2010, is the first fully functioning unit of its kind [in the world], says Mathavan. “All others are in research or academic facilities,” he adds.

“One of our problems is that we are the first to the market. Everyone wants to see a completed unit. Now that this one has been launched it’s time for us to start marketing aggressively,” says Mathavan who has an ambitious revenue target of RM60 million by year-end.

The digital autopsy system was accepted by the legal and forensic authorities when British pathologist Prof Peter Vanezis used the technology to investigate and testify in the inquest into the death of political aide Teoh Beng Hock. “That it was accepted in such a controversial and high-profile trial means it will be accepted in all trials,” says Mathavan.

Marketing the technology to forensic pathologists still represents a challenge, he says. “Most seem to regard it as a zero-sum game. Not so! Digital autopsy is a tool that should be used to supplement, not replace, traditional methods,” adds Mathavan.

Continually innovating, Infovalley is also marketing to the police a spinoff software programme that was bundled with the digital autopsy system. The software enables the police to take photos from about eight angles and create a composite 3D image of the area where the body is found that can be manipulated from any angle. “It was more for the coroners but the law enforcement officers love it as it lets them make a quick and very accurate report on how the body was found. Less paperwork!” he says with a smile.

“Now we have to sell, sell, sell, and build brand equity. But we will continue to invest in R&D and focus on the next generation of innovation. No ‘me too’ products for us,” says Mathavan. “To me, innovation is making the impossible, possible. To discover the unknown steps that will bring the future to you today.”

 
This article appeared in [email protected], the monthly management pullout of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 809, Jun 7-13, 2010.