Blog: 3 continents, 2 doctors, 1 device, and a travel freeze - How we bagged our first international client for microscope slide scanner during the pandemic

Shipping Microscope slide scanners globally
The journey of a young Digital Pathology device manufacturing startup’s big dreams of making a mark in the global digital pathology scanner market.
2020 was going to be a big year for us at Morphle Labs and our microscope slide scanners. Through 2018-19, we, Morphle Digital Pathology had successfully made our first foray into robotic and virtual microscopy - a domain dominated by medical technology giants. We had worked hard to design, develop, and rigorously test our patented whole slide scanning technology - one that delivers supreme image quality that rivals the best digital microscopy optics in the world - at a fraction of the cost.

We managed to tick all the boxes of our ambitious and aggressive checklist for microscope slide scanners:
☑ Building a reliable whole slide scanning technology that our users love
☑ Getting the first 10 paid customers for Digital Pathology
☑ Raising seed funding to amplify firepower
☑ Scaling up manufacturing for consistency & value
☑ Kick-starting growth by bagging 25 customers mark within one quarter

We had our most ambitious to-do for 2020 -  International expansion and sales
And then, the COVID-19 crisis brought the world to a screeching halt.

Locked Down

A Digital Pathology devices startup like ours was hit the hardest - at a time when we were itching to do the most. Here’s why. Though there was a scope for increased demand for medical devices, there was an issue. Mid-high (ticket-size) products like our microscope slide scanner, conventionally rely heavily on onsite technical support for installation and initial training. Most Digital Pathology users expect providers to install, calibrate, and support them with multiple annual servicing visits.

The COVID-19 travel bans made all of this virtually impossible.

After coming to terms with our initial disappointment, we knew there was something we could do.

Good design is a problem half-solved

Human-centered design has been a core value underscoring every aspect of our work - we decided that’s where we needed to start. We went back to the whiteboard to review our design of microscope slide scanners - at the product and user-experience level.

1. At the whole slide scanner product end, we needed to ensure that our product, microscope slide scanner could withstand extreme travel conditions. We designed and implemented exhaustive factory side testing to guard against worst-case shipping malfunctions.
2. For our Digital Pathology users, we needed to ensure that our devices could be set up even by non-technical users. We looked at two areas:

  • Assembly - Our first step was to review our microscope slide scanner design to ensure error-free on-field assembly even for non-technical users. We ensured this through modular, user-friendly assembly even for the most sensitive component
  • Calibration - Digital readouts for all calibration activities accompanied by automated guidance algorithms at every step.

Meanwhile in Cambodia

At around this time, PATH Labs in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, was looking to procure their first-ever digital pathology slide scanner. PATH Labs provides diagnostic pathology services throughout Cambodia, particularly to the rural communities, with a commitment to achieving excellence in cancer research and education.

In September, we received an email from Dr. Vitou from PATH labs. He had come across our video demonstration on microscope slide scanner on YouTube and his curiosity was piqued.

What happened next

In the next two days, we had our first international order for microscope slide scanner.

Not before our sales team gave him a detailed orientation and feature demo over a 2-hour Zoom call and answered his questions and allayed his justified apprehensions and scepticism around Digital Pathology. We offer a 2-month return policy - with the return shipping charges for microscope sldie scanner borne by us. And, an option for partial payment at the time of the order. This made the decision easier for PATH Labs to embrace Digital Pathology.

And there, we had it - our first international microscope slide scanner order and an opportunity to put our efforts to a real test - a test of trust and distance.

Our product’s first international journey

There began the 3000 km journey of our Digital Pathology Scanner Optimus 6T - from Bangalore, India to Phnom Penh, Cambodia - with three users spread across Cambodia, France, and the USA where PATH Labs’ pathologists were eagerly waiting to use the newest addition to their lab.

  • Day 1, 28th Sept 2020: We loaded the microscope slide scanner from our warehouse in Bangalore
morphle microscope slide scanner packaging
  • Day 6, 3rd Oct 2020, 3.30 pm: The Digital Pathology scanner was delivered to the team at PATH Labs in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
unboxing of morphle digital pathology slide scanner
  • 4.30 pm: We begin remote support for installation of the microscope slide scanner
  • 6.00 pm: Pathology slide Scanner is in operation with video-guided assistance from our engineers
  • 6.30 pm: We perform a remote Quality Check on the microscope slide scanner
  • 6.35 pm: The first Digital Pathology Tissue Scan was completed by the PATH Labs team!
operation of morphle whole slide scanner
Meanwhile, Dr Vitou, in Paris, was waiting to lay (virtually, of course) his hands on his newest find.

  • 6: 36: The moment of truth for Dr. Vitou almost 10000 km away in Paris
Dr. Vitou reporting from Paris using Morphle digital pathology image viewer
And, for us. We waited with bated breath as we saw him get right to work. When he beamed at us across the screen, we knew it was a moment to celebrate.

This was 10 weeks ago. Since then, Dr. Monirath, one of PATH Labs' consultant doctors based in San Francisco, has tele-reported over 300 cases - from a distance of over 12000 km.

To us, that is the power of good design. Our focus has been to design microscope slide scanner products that enable collaboration and cost-saving - without a compromise on quality. With our first international client, we couldn’t be happier to have enabled that - in the middle of a global pandemic.

Here’s what Dr. Vitou has to say about his experience.

"This scanner, in fact, Cambodia’s first, is a huge step in our efforts to offer global quality pathology to patients in Cambodia. It has helped us get top quality pathology expertise to our people - at a time like this. It has enabled our consultant pathologists from across the globe to telereport and collaborate - besides taking a massive load off our technicians. Though my team was able to install the scanner entirely on their own, Daniel and the Morphle team have always been only a text message away."

This is what San Francisco-based Dr. Monirath says about her experience
Dr. Monirath utilizing morphle telepathology interface
"The Optimus 6T microscope slide scanner has been a real lifesaver for us. Being based out of San Francisco, I’d spend a lot of time coordinating with our technicians in Cambodia - across time zones - and then patching together partial photos. It wasn’t easy for our technicians either - with the tedious and repetitive work adding to everything else they had to do.

Now, I work independently on my own time, and the best part, the image quality is great, so I no longer need to get things rescanned. It’s made diagnosing and working remotely much, much easier for me."

For us, this step in our journey has some important lessons -

  • Good design is a problem half-solved - Our user-friendly design ensured that even untrained users can set up our Digital Pathology device - through minimal virtual support
  • Listen to your customers - Dr. Vitou and his team’s insights and feedback helped us relook our support and maintenance framework
  • A product is no good without the right service and support - Whether it was a demo on Zoom, dedicated video-call support when needed, and continuous support on a dedicated WhatsApp group, our customers will remain at the centre of everything we do
As an organization, we are resolutely committed to supporting our customers every step of the way - through thoughtful, intuitive design and consistent support they can always rely on.

We are now scaling this model to reach various geographies and form collaborations with various partners. Onwards and upwards.
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