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The doctor will see you now, from 12,000 km away

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The doctor studied the ultrasound image of the patient's lungs. Sure enough, the telltale signs of altitude sickness were apparent. That was not a surprise. The patient was a climber at base camp on Mount Everest, 6,400 metres above sea level.

More unusual was the doctor's location. He was in Detroit, studying the image via a satellite connection.

Scott Dulchavsky was the doctor, and he's chairman of surgery at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. To examine the climbing patient, another climber set up a portable computer powered by a solar panel and manned the ultrasound machine for Dr. Dulchavsky. Then, a high-resolution image was transmitted to Detroit with a satellite phone and a video capture device, or frame grabber, made by Epiphan Systems Inc., a seven-year-old Ottawa company.

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Epiphan's devices are useful because they are inexpensive and simple to set up, says Dr. Dulchavsky, who is an adviser to the company. Most technology for transmitting diagnostic images almost requires an IT pro "to be standing at both ends," he says.

Dr. Dulchavsky has also relied on Epiphan's technology to perform remote diagnoses for sports teams and Olympic athletes. The next frontier is space. Dr. Dulchavsky is part of a project using ultrasound on the International Space Station. Epiphan's technology isn't on the station, but NASA uses it in training.

But telemedicine - a doctor in one location, a patient in another - is the biggest market for Epiphan's frame grabber technology, says company co-founder and chief executive, Mike Sandler.

Many frame grabbers must be installed inside a computer. Epiphan created the first external frame grabber, says Mr. Sandler, "and it's still unique." The company today makes a range of devices, both external and internal.

Unlike other such devices, Epiphan's frame grabbers can connect to any equipment able to output a VGA or DVI video signal - the most used standards for computers and other electronic gear - through a USB connection.

After medicine, education is Epiphan's next biggest market. About 400 universities use its products, half of them in medical applications and the rest for distance education, Mr. Sandler says. An instructor can transmit video or still images from a computer to students in other locations using one of Epiphan's devices.

Epiphan products are also used in Opencast Matterhorn, an open-source distance education system created by a dozen universities, including the University of Saskatchewan, and used around the world. Though the system allows different video capture devices, Christopher Brooks, a University of Saskatchewan researcher who helped develop the system, says Epiphan's units are the most popular because of their flexibility and low cost.

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Epiphan has customers in 89 countries today, Mr. Sandler says. About half of its 44 employees work in software development in Moscow; the rest of its operations are in Ottawa.

Mr. Sandler and Misha Zhilin, now Epiphan's chief technology officer, previously co-founded IPMeeting, a collaboration software company. In 2000, they sold IPMeeting to DWL Inc., an e-business software company later acquired by IBM. Their original plan for Epiphan was to focus on online collaboration again, but this time with a hardware product rather than software.

Mr. Sandler and Mr. Zhilin realized they needed a component to capture video frames directly from a video source - a PC, a medical instrument or anything else with a video display - for transmission over a network. They couldn't find what they wanted, Mr. Sandler says, so "we decided to build it." Having done so, they realized the frame grabber was a product, and one nobody else was offering.

That was a bonus for the young firm.

"It really helped us in terms of bootstrapping the company," Mr. Sandler recalls, "because we got initial sales." Epiphan also completed the collaboration system the founders originally set out to build, called VGA2WEB. This evolved into the current VGA Broadcaster product, which Epiphan still sells, Mr. Sandler says. Still, it represents about 10 per cent of Epiphan's sales. The rest is frame grabbers.

The company has avoided venture capital, a choice Mr. Sandler says has helped Epiphan make quick decisions. Money from friends and family financed the startup. Positive cash flow within the company's first year, thanks to early sales of its initial frame grabber, allowed the founders to buy out about half the original investors. The rest, Mr. Sandler notes, aren't so sure they want to cash out now.

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