Industry Watch

With its touch screen, video communications, and multiple languages, Phrazer is an impressive tool

Global ambition

How GeaCom in Duluth is going global the smart way — and hoping to improve medical care around the world

By Hemang Sharma

Much tragedy in the world occurs because good medical care isn't provided to those in need  often because of simple communication issues. Even if doctors are at hand, they might be prevented by language and cultural barriers from understanding problems and picking up on important cues. "Communication is a big thing in medicine, more than what people manage to realize," says Dr. Scott Joing, an emergency medicine faculty at the Hennepin County Medical Center in downtown Minneapolis. His center uses interpreters when necessary, but interpreters are not available in every setting.

Working to address this problem is GeaCom, a small company in Duluth founded in 2008. Its flagship product, Phrazer, acts as a translator, record keeper, and overall communication enhancer between patients and doctors who may lack a common language or background. How GeaCom has grown from a humble local startup to a respected medical device maker doing business around the world is an inspiring tale for Minnesota businesses of all stripes.

MJThe company is headed by CEO Mat Johnson, a University of Minnesota alum whose background includes stints at Honeywell, Cargill, and Medtronic.

Johnson also headed a technology contracting firm, experiences with which helped lead to the idea for GeaCom. The firm worked on video technologies with Medtronic, for instance, streaming heart surgeries so that surgeons could share techniques for resolving complexities and using pacemakers. It also took on a project that involved translating documentation from Japanese into English, which helped Johnson see the difficulties of working across languages.

In 2003 Johnson started researching and developing the concept for Phrazer, and five years later he established GeaCom, hiring linguists, engineers, and others who shared his belief in the need for the product. Eight years later, Phrazer won gold in the 2011 Edison Awards, for the category of "Science & Medical: Handheld or Miniaturized Devices."

A nifty device

Using cues that leave no room for confusion, Phrazer quickly allows a doctor to understand what a patient is feeling, register their procedural consent, and deliver important care, all while the device compiles an electronic record to be reviewed later. Patients hold the device and see a pre-recorded video message in their native language by a doctor who then asks them a few simple questions about their medical present and past. Patients respond via a user-friendly touch-screen interface.

Phrazer's biggest asset is its ability to decipher the patient's medical history and current condition, usually within 20 seconds, so the doctor can determine what kind of attention the patient needs. The device does so in a systematic, time-efficient manner while understanding dialects and cultural cues and also accommodating for a person's gender, age, and even race.

The science behind Phrazer is complicated, involving neuroscience, psychology, sociology, neurology, and communication. What emerges from its use is a highly sophisticated yet simplified form of communication.

Dr. Joing at the Hennepin County Medical Center thinks Phrazer can make a difference, and he hopes to use it someday. "It's exciting to see the possibilities," he says. "There is always room for improvement. I see no harm in a device that would help communication. When patients see someone that speaks the same language, they get more comfortable."

Phrazer compiles a comprehensive medical record by the patient's own account, hence streamlining a lengthy translation process that may hold back the provider from saving a patient's life or thoroughly understanding their concerns, or registering proper consent for important procedures. The record can be used later by hospitals. Miscommunication between patients, first responders, physicians, and medical records transcriptionists can have serious clinical consequences, ranging from unnecessary testing to misdiagnoses and multimillion-dollar malpractice settlements. Phrazer can significantly reduce such errors.

Phrazer has been approved by the FDA, which oversees medical devices, and has received certification from the PTCRB, which provides wireless device certification. It's also in good standing with the FCC.

And despite the many uncertainties surrounding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, Johnson is confident that Phrazer meets its requirements for health care records. "There are already mandates on state and federal levels, such as the requirement of keeping electronic records and form of consent laws for medical care providers, which we are accommodating," he says.

GeaCom also has been careful to set up patent protection in various international markets to guard against the threat of cheap knockoffs and stolen intellectual property.

Duluth to Dubai

GeaCom has gone global with impressive zeal for a small company based in Duluth. Of course that's partly because of the nature of its product, but already more than 85 percent of its business is outside of the United States, including in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East.

It didn't reach beyond the national borders completely on its own, however. GeaCom took full advantage of the Minneapolis office of the U.S. Commercial Service, the trade promotion arm of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

First, a USCS international trade specialist met with GeaCom in Duluth to learn more about it. From there the agency and the company began working together, with the former mentioning GeaCom to global contacts when it made sense.

The agency provided GeaCom with information about various international markets, including demographics, federal restrictions on trading with these countries, and how they favor or hinder the entrance of a product like Phrazer. They also helped with arranging favorable SBA grants and loans related to exporting.

"There's a ton of research that the USCS has available to us, and they provide really great services," says Johnson. "It's been a very good relationship for our company."

Among those services: introductions. When the USCS organized an event about trading with the United Arab Emirates, for instance, a good match was seen. GeaCom attended the event, received free introductions to key players, and today is well set up to do business in Dubai.

Much of the USCS help is provided free of charge, but GeaCom has also availed itself of some of the agency's nominal-fee services. When it entered Brazil and Canada, for instance, it used one of the USCS's more extensive introduction packages.

The USCS can't help with everything, of course. By necessity, GeaCom has become a specialist in handling languages and dialects. It has one translation service in Minneapolis and another in Duluth.

Taking advantage of a patented methodology and other trade secrets, the company can add any language or dialect to the Phrazer repertoire in three to six weeks. So far about 25 languages have been completed. Focus groups perform quality checks until the dialect and cultural cues are perfected. In each language, the company sets up various protocols, such as for diabetes, hypertension, and so on.

Minnesota nice

There's much more to Phrazers than overcoming language barriers. Demand is growing both abroad and in the U.S., where the doctors and patients primarily speak English. "The device significantly improves accuracy in same-language situations while also improving throughput, auto-entering patient information into the digital chart and creating a clear audit trail," says Johnson.

By May, Phrazers in the U.S. market are expected to be seeing 7,000 patients a day, and by year's end that number will approach 50,000, he says. Johnson adds that GeaCom has landed a deal with a major health care provider as well as with a network carrier, but as we go to press he's not at liberty to disclose the details.

GeaCom's location in Duluth, which boasts an international port of trade and foreign trade zone, provides it with a number of advantages.

A company can bring in parts, assemble them, and ship a product without additional taxes, notes Johnson. Plus, he adds, Duluth offers a high-skilled labor market, "making it a strongly positioned city that has an excellent work environment."

GeaCom is scenically headquartered in the historic Dewitt-Seitz building in Duluth's Canal Park neighborhood, on the shores of Lake Superior. It has another office in Shoreview, but almost everything related to the product is either made or assembled in the state. Even most of the investors are from the state, with a few from Illinois and California.

"We are truly a Minnesota company," says Johnson. "There is a lot of talent in the state. The winters are longer, and people have great ideas, which they can develop over time. The business environment is remarkable."

What advice does Johnson have for small companies in Minnesota looking to succeed globally? "I guess the takeaway is to keep working, keep innovating, and keep developing ideas," he says. "There is a good chance of ideas coming from here that can reach global markets."