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The Inventivity Pod
Better MRI's
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Jeff Fitzsimmons, a professor of radiology at the University of Florida, invented a way to use RF antennas to capture detailed signals from body parts that are undergoing an MRI.   A native of Newark, New Jersey, Jeff moved to Florida as a kid, where his dad worked at the (future) Cape Canaveral in the early 1960’s. “One of my biggest thrills,” he says, “was going out to the range with my dad to see a missile fired.” His dad was also a radio amateur, which introduced Jeff to the concept of antennas at a very early age. This came in handy when Jeff was a Navy communications specialist during the Vietnam era and at the National Security Agency. Later in life he formed a successful company that was bought by Philips Electronics. *This episode was originally released on February 20, 2019.*

 

TRANSCRIPT:

 

Intro: 0:01

Inventors and their inventions. Welcome to Radio Cade a podcast from the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention in Gainesville, Florida. The museum is named after James Robert Cade , who invented Gatorade in 1965. My name is Richard Miles. We’ll introduce you to inventors and the things that motivate them. We’ll learn about their personal stories, how their inventions work, and how their ideas get from the laboratory to the marketplace.

Richard Miles: 0:20

Our guest today on Radio Cade is Jeff Fitzsimmons: an inventor with a magnetic personality. And I mean that both literally and seriously, as the saying goes. Jeff is a Professor of Radiology at the University of Florida who invented radio frequency coil arrays for high field MRIs. Welcome to the show, Jeff. And did I get that description right?

Jeff Fitzsimmons: 0:20

Yes, you did.

Richard Miles: 0:20

So I got it right, only because I read it off a sheet of paper but, I need you to explain, briefly and in layman’s term, exactly what an RF coiler array for MRI means and what it does.

Jeff Fitzsimmons: 0:39

Sure. So the best way to think about this is if you’ve ever seen a television antenna or you’ve ever seen a radio tower or you’ve seen a cell tower or any of those devices, those are all radio frequency antennas. The cell phone that you carry around with you has a very tiny radio frequency antenna built in. In fact, it has, it has a number of them built in. And of course in the old days, your television set used to have a radio frequency antenna on the roof. So, the antennas that we designed and built, and the reason they were unique, is that they were designed to pick up signals from parts of your body and so they focused on your shoulder or your hand or wrist or your knee or your foot or your brain or your heart, things like that. So these are custom designed radio-frequency coil arrays that are essentially antenna arrays that are conformed to a particular body part. So, they maximize the signal from that part and give you the best possible image.

Richard Miles: 1:35

Okay, great explanation. I think I get it. So these are obviously used in a wide array of applications in hospital settings. Right. So basically anytime you go into an MRI, depending on what hurts or what ain’t working, there’ll be some sort of coil array that will be looking for signals from that part of the body…is that about right? (Jeff: Yes, that’s right.) Okay. All right. So like many inventors, you started out in academia, and then you made the transition through the commercialization of your research and that is a story that is not always successful. In fact, I’m guessing by the numbers, this fails more often than it succeeds. Can you describe a little bit about what led you to that path? I guess what led you to the decision first fall that you had a technology that you thought had market potential, and then what was your thought process as you said, okay, I think this has market potential. Here’s my to do list for the next year or two. Do you remember that far back or you push it out of your mind?

Jeff Fitzsimmons: 2:26

Sure. Well, we had serial number three MR scanner here in the United States so that put us at the very leading edge of MR Imaging and we previously had a laboratory with small scale animal imaging. So I had experience building devices and radio frequency antennas for animals like mice and rabbits and things like that. So when we scaled up to the human version, we immediately saw the opportunity to do this with humans. And I remember the first thing we did was look at the human spine because everybody’s interested in their spinal cord and they’re interested in the discs that are in their spine. And so we built an RF coil to image the spine and we put it into this large magnet system. And we made images of the spine that were better than the ones that the manufacturer was making. So they started coming to me over a period of time and I was asked by companies like General Electric to make these things for them, make them available. And my initial reaction was, no, we really didn’t have the team or the wherewithal to do that kind of thing. I was really more interested in the research. So it took some time before the right people came along that I was able to recruit to form the nexus of a company to tackle this problem. B ut I would say, you know, the opportunity sort of came to us to put it that way.

Richard Miles: 3:21

You know, what year are we talking about? What’s their timeframe?

Jeff Fitzsimmons: 4:16

We’re talking about the late 1970s, early 1980s.

Richard Miles: 5:14

And how was a MRI technology generally received or viewed by the medical community then? Was it seen with some kind of new fangled thing that wasn’t really necessary or was it immediately embraced by doctors?

Jeff Fitzsimmons: 6:10

Yes, that’s a good question. I have to give a lot of credit to radiologists because radiologists are technology adopters. They like new technology, they get excited about new technology and they’re not, I don’t want to put down other professions or specialties, but because radiologists have this history of going from x rays to ultra sound to computerized tomography. They have gone through any number of large technological shifts that have given them new information. And so they see it as a way to get more information from the human body without cutting you open. So we call this noninvasive imaging. And of course magnetic resonance imaging was a great opportunity to do even more noninvasive imaging. So they were excited about it. They wanted it.

Richard Miles: 6:10

So let me hazard a guess here. Were surgeons against this? I mean, did they , did they think it wasn’t as good or that you still needed to do surgery or what was their response initially?

Jeff Fitzsimmons: 6:21

Yeah, I think most of the medical community took a wait and see approach. And the early scanners that were put out there, the images weren’t very good. So we may have made an image of the spine, but it was kind of grainy and it wasn’t particularly pretty. You couldn’t see the details that you might like. So there was a period of technical evolution that took a good three to five years just to get it to the point where a radiologist would say, oh, I know exactly what’s happening at c four or know what’s happening at l three, uh , that took some time and then even much longer to become what it is today. Today, the resolution of a modern MR scanner is astounding. I mean, it’s, it’s better than you can do by cutting your body open.

Richard Miles: 6:57

Jeff, I heard you talk earlier about there’s a common perception out there as people develop new technologies or companies based on new technologies, the examples you’re looking for or the Googles and the Facebooks and sort of the big cash outs, or the Snapchats or whatever we’re talking about. And I think you think that’s unrealistic, right? Tell us, what is your view on, you know, if you are serious about commercializing any technology, how much time do you mentally need to devote to sticking with it before you can expect a good payday ?

Jeff Fitzsimmons: 7:55

Yeah, I think people often talk in terms of three to five years and you know, maybe they’ll cash out and go home. And I think those kinds of timeframes are really very, very unrealistic. It becomes more realistic when you start talking about 10 to 15 year timeframes. And so people that are starting out and look, I had several partners that helped me in this endeavor to begin with and they basically worked for free. And so you can anticipate several years of working for free and then several more years of working for peanuts and then several more years after that before you actually get paid. So you know, you’re looking at an endeavor that in terms of actually returning a profit that minimum of 10 years and more likely 15. That’s much more realistic.

Richard Miles: 8:38

So better up front to tell your mom you’re going to be sleeping on her couch for a good long while.

Jeff Fitzsimmons: 8:44

Or if you borrow money from your parents to start the business, don’t tell them they’re going to get it back in three years.

Richard Miles: 8:49

Right. Good advice. All right, let’s back up, Jeff, and talk about sort of pre-success, Jeff Fitzsimmons maybe pre-career. What were you, and I ask this of all guests, I think it’s interesting. Where were you born? Where’d you grow up? What were you like as a kid?

Jeff Fitzsimmons: 9:07

So, I was born in Newark, New Jersey, which is neither here nor there in terms of the story. My dad moved to Florida when I was still quite young and he took a job, eventually he had several jobs, but eventually ended up working for RCA at the missile test center. So back then it wasn’t the Kennedy Space Center, it was the Patrick Air Force Base missile test center because it was part of the Air Force. The missile test center was the Air Force basically. So RCA had a huge technical laboratory on the base and my dad worked there. And so I was introduced to computers and telecommunications and satellite communications and things like that when I was a kid. And of my biggest thrills was going with my dad out to the range to see a missile fired. And we’re talking now in the 60s. Right. And so not everybody was going out there to see missiles fired. It was really not even known what they were doing on the Cape at that time. But, my father was also radio amateur.

Richard Miles: 10:12

So this is just before the space program?

Jeff Fitzsimmons: 10:14

Yes, it was before,

Richard Miles: 10:14

before late fifties, early sixties?

Jeff Fitzsimmons: 10:16

Early sixties. So, my father was also a radio amateur, so he had in our back porch a complete radio station. And we had antennas going up to trees and various contraptions that were strung around the house and most of it’s self made. I mean he designed and built his own radios. So I became a radio amateur when I was 12 years old. And that was a little premature for most radio amateurs that usually wait until they’re a little bit older, but I was very excited by that and my dad was a great teacher and so I learned a great deal from him. I guess, you know, that’s really the genesis of my involvement in technology was it came from my father’s example.

Richard Miles: 10:59

Jeff, were you a good student in school?

Jeff Fitzsimmons: 11:01

Initially in, in grammar school I didn’t do that well grade wise because I didn’t have glasses. And, oftentimes I would write the wrong question down and have the right answer to the wrong question. And that wasn’t discovered until sometime later that I was getting bad grades because I didn’t have the question right. And because teachers would put things on the blackboard and I would just write down what I saw and sometimes I get the numbers mixed up. But after I got my glasses, my grades improved. So, I was a pretty good student. I loved science and technology and that would’ve absorbed me completely except I spent a lot of time at the beach surfing. So that kind of put a damper on being too academic.

Richard Miles: 11:47

So you obviously stayed in Florida. Did you go to University of Florida as an undergraduate?

Jeff Fitzsimmons: 11:51

Um, I did. I went to the University of Florida as an Undergrad. And then, I was drafted, this was during the Vietnam conflict. So, I was taken away from all that for four years. I was in the navy. And then when I came back I went to FIT and then later went back to the University of Florida.

Richard Miles: 12:13

Tell us a little about your stint in the navy, what kind of ship were you on and where was it?

Jeff Fitzsimmons: 12:17

Well. Um, again, I was very fortunate. I went to a naval communications training center in Corry Field, Florida and there , because I knew the Morse Code and I knew about radios and equipment, I’ve very quickly mastered the program and they made me an instructor. So as a night school instructor, I had a special card that said I could lead the base anytime I wanted to. And so I used to drive home on the weekends, you know, I’d drive to Melbourne, which is a huge drive from Melbourne to Pensacola, Florida. But anyway, I had a little bit of a sense of freedom going through the school. And then I went into the naval communications section of the national security agency. So I basically did electronic espionage, so, I can’t tell you any more than that. I’d have to kill you.

Richard Miles: 13:10

Well, fascinating. Our stories intersect actually in a number of ways that you’re not aware of Jeff. One, I actually was a radio, got a third class radio license when I was 10. I took my exam in Tampa, Florida as my dad was a radio broadcaster, he insisted I do it. And I don’t know why, but I remember taking a test in Tampa and I passed it. I was also in the army, intelligence side and my son is in the navy and communications. The only differences , I haven’t had a very successful company, otherwise we’re the same person. So Jeff, you are a big success in Gainesville and certainly not just Gainesville. And I know you get asked for advice a lot, probably asked you to young entrepreneurs or students or engineers or whatnot. Generally what, what are their questions and what are your answers? And have those answers changed? Do you have a different take say on the success of your company when it happened and the success looking back, have you changed your mind on any of those things?

Jeff Fitzsimmons: 14:20

Well, I think the first thing people come to you for is money. I mean, 9 times out of 10, whenever somebody finds me, they say they want technical advice and they want guidance and they want mentorship. But what they really want is money and investment in their company. So, I have to inform them that I do invest in startup companies, but there are a lot of stipulations that go with that. And, first of all, asking them a lot of questions about what they can tell me about what they’re doing. So once again, the typical inventor will come to me with some idea or some device which they think is the greatest thing since sliced bread in which they’re convinced everybody in the planet is going to have to have one. And then we have to work through that illusion and try to pare it down to the people who actually might buy this thing and what they would pay for it and what the profit margins might be in all those nasty things that you’d have to consider. And so it turns out in the long run that the technology, and I tell this to people all the time, it’s great to have a great idea. I love it. It’s exciting. It’s fun, you know, but it’s not near enough, you know, it’s just only the beginning. And so what they need more than anything is they need a small team, a core group of people who are dedicated to the mission, who understand the mission, they understand the technology, they understand the purpose of it, the broader implications of it, and they are willing to dedicate themselves to it’s future. And so we were very blessed and very fortunate in that regard. I had two or three people working in my laboratory at the time on campus. And so when we formed our company, those people transitioned off to working for the company. But you know, I didn’t have to recruit them because they were already graduate students and other people that were in my research group. So I sort of stole from my own research group and then hired people back into it, you know, over time. What I find is most successful technology groups, they grow like that. They get people to move from one place to another to join a particular effort. But it can’t really be about the money. And thats another thing, you know, you can’t tell people enough, forget about the money. You know, you’re not going to see any real money for a very long time. So you have to be sustained on the mission and on your enthusiasm and determination. And so the word persistence comes up a lot. You have to go at it and keep going at it and be persistent in the face of whatever the odds are. If you have any chance of success, you just have to be quite determined.

Richard Miles: 17:07

So as you look at your portfolio of investments that have sorta paid off and those that have not, have you been able to spawn a common denominator in terms of the quality of the CEO or the colleague of the senior managers ? Set aside for a moment, um, you know, the idea itself, right? I presume you don’t invest in ideas you think are bad. Right ? You probably thought they were all good. And then let’s set aside, you know, some regulatory hurdles that nobody could have predicted. Is there something, looking back on a success as you go “Gosh, I think it was this factor.”

Jeff Fitzsimmons: 17:43

Yeah. We’ve done that retro analysis a lot and I’ve also had the opportunity to look at dozens of companies over the past 10 or 15 years apart from the one that I was intimately involved with and I oftentimes boiled it down to one word. And it’s integrity. People have to have rock solid integrity. If the people in the company can’t be a hundred percent honest with each other and can’t tell each other to their face when they think they’re wrong or they’re right or they’re indifferent, the company doesn’t have much of a chance. If there’s some kind of gaming going on and someone’s trying to BS somebody about what the value is or what something does or doesn’t do, it’s doomed to failure at the beginning. So more than anything, and I know this isn’t an easy thing to assess and I don’t delude myself into thinking I know how to assess it exactly. But I do know that individual integrity over time turns out to be one of the most important ingredients because that’s where honesty comes from. That’s where trust comes from. And if you can’t build something on trust, that’s all the highly successful companies today. That’s what they build their future on is trust. You know, if you can’t get a large number of people to trust you, you don’t have a chance.

Richard Miles: 19:04

And it sounds like candor is one of those as well because what you’re saying reminds me of , you’ve probably read the book, it came out what about 10 years ago , Startup Nation, right about Israel and it talks about these fascinating examples inherent in Israeli culture. One of them being the military, right, where you have these very flat hierarchies and you have private space, telling generals where they went wrong. Something that you probably didn’t see a lot of. I didn’t in the US military. But what that does is it speeds up that self-correction loop, right. In that if you’ve got everybody in your company telling you bad idea. And you trust them, you’re able to either avoid or pull out of mistakes a lot faster. So it sounds like that’s kind of a key ingredient.

Jeff Fitzsimmons: 19:50

Absolutely. You know, because look, everybody’s going to make mistakes. That’s a given. The real question is, my old boss, Clyde Williams, was an MD Phd Rhodes Scholar, brilliant guy. He was the Chairman of Radiology for many years. And he’d say, Jeff, you’re job is to make mistakes faster. Figure it out, get over it, and move on. Don’t dwell on your mistakes. Don’t invest in your mistakes. Don’t wallow in your mistakes. You know, lay it on the table, look at it. Go yup, it was a mistake I made. It is time to move on.

Richard Miles: 20:23

It’s interesting he didn’t say deny the mistake. Confront that and move it on.

Jeff Fitzsimmons: 20:29

Yeah, that’s key. The candor aspect of it is very important and I relate that or call certain integrity.

Richard Miles: 20:36

So Jeff , I’m coming up with a business model now. I think what we’re going to do is bottle your advice and we’re going to go ahead and sell it on the website. You just have to wait 20 years for it to pay off. That’ll be in the small print. Jeff, thanks has been fascinating. Thanks for joining us on Radio Cade . And I look forward to having you and your great ideas back on the show.

Jeff Fitzsimmons: 21:00

Thank you.

Richard Miles: 21:01

Thanks for listening. I’m Richard Miles.

Outro: 21:08

Radio Cade would like to thank the following people for their help and support. Bob McPeak of Heartwood Soundstage in Downtown Gainesville, Florida for recording, editing, and production of the podcasts and music theme. Tracy Collins for the composition and performance of the Radio Cade theme song featuring violinist, Jacob Lawson and special thanks to the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention located in Gainesville, Florida.

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