GE HealthCare scores $44M Gates Foundation grant for AI-powered ultrasound

One of GE HealthCare’s first moves after spinning out from under the General Electric umbrella earlier this year was to acquire Caption Health, a maker of artificial intelligence-powered ultrasound guidance technology.

The buyout is already paying off: GE HealthCare has now attracted a grant of more than $44 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that’ll support the development of Caption’s AI algorithms, which help guide clinicians through the process of conducting an accurate ultrasound scan, whether or not they’ve received any formal training.

The foundation’s backing will specifically support Caption’s work to bring that technology to low- and middle-income countries, according to a Monday announcement. The AI will be integrated into a wide swath of ultrasound devices, including the less-expensive, easy-to-use handheld scanners that devicemakers like GE HealthCare are particularly focused on bringing to under-resourced communities.

The Gates-backed work will focus on improving maternal health and lung screening in these countries.

According to data cited by GE HealthCare, the vast majority of all maternal deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, but ultrasound scans can help reduce both maternal and child mortality by scanning for certain fetal health markers, umbilical blood flow, ectopic pregnancy and other conditions that may contribute to complications during pregnancy and delivery.

Maternal health was the core focus of the Gates Foundation’s annual Goalkeepers report, which was released earlier this month and singled out AI-assisted ultrasound as one of a handful of low-cost innovations that could potentially prevent thousands of maternal deaths and millions of stillbirths and infant deaths in poorer nations every year by 2040.

Meanwhile, per GE HealthCare, a simple ultrasound scan of the lungs conducted at the point of care can help catch pneumonia in its earliest stages—and can also do so more accurately than an X-ray—therefore improving the chances of successfully treating the condition, which is the leading cause of death for children under the age of 5.

“Ultrasound is an essential tool for screening and diagnosis of various medical conditions, including the health of expectant mothers and managing respiratory diseases,” Roland Rott, president and CEO of the ultrasound business at GE HealthCare, said in the announcement.

“However, a key limitation is the guidance of lesser-skilled users to effectively apply affordable point-of-care ultrasound in their care environment,” Rott continued. “This grant will help bring Caption Health’s leading AI technology customized to more users, and therefore contribute to increased access to higher-quality medical care.”

Caption was previously the recipient of another Gates Foundation grant. Awarded in late 2020, amid one of the many peaks of the COVID-19 pandemic, the $4.95 million grant supported the company’s development of an AI algorithm for lung ultrasound scans to improve screening for potentially fatal respiratory diseases.

That backing came shortly after Caption had earned FDA approval for its first AI tool, which helps clinicians perform heart ultrasounds to spot signs of cardiac disease.