Based in the Seattle area, ultrasound equipment support provider Summit Imaging has grown dramatically since its founding in 2006. 24×7 recently spoke with CEO Larry Nguyen about why technology matters, the future impact of FDA regulation, the value of hiring smart people—and how it all translates to helping customers.
24×7: How did you get into this line of work?
Nguyen: I was really lucky to grow up in the Seattle area. The first Doppler ultrasound machine was at the University of Washington, where I graduated. Seattle is really a hotbed for ultrasound.
24×7: How did you decide to start your own business?
Nguyen: Summit Imaging was founded in 2006. My college degree was in business, with concentrations in corporate entrepreneurship and information systems, and I started my career in tech. Conversations with many friends and family members who were in the ultrasound industry quickly identified for me the hurdles to supporting the latest advances in technology within ultrasound equipment. I discovered the significant shift from analog to digital machines hadn’t been matched by the independent support industry, and decided to pursue solutions to an industry problem.
The problem for the industry was that the latest ultrasound machines all run embedded operating systems. We are able to support these complex systems through identifying and diagnosing problems beyond what the system displays to you on the screen. In addition to accurate diagnosis, we can identify and rebuild these complex computers as well, which is critical to a successful support call for the clinical engineer.
The days where you can blindly “shotgun” a machine (by installing a barrage of parts to resolve issues) and conclude that “this one fixed it” are no longer feasible. It’s not as simple as that anymore. There are configuration issues, drivers, flashing of PROMs, and a host of other software variables that need to be resolved in order to bring the system back to a functional state.
24×7: How is Summit’s approach different from that of competitors?
Nguyen: We’re able to understand what’s going on in the systems’ computers. Our entire team comes from tech, all the way from the executive team, to middle management, to our CSR team and to our repair technicians. All of our technicians come from tech backgrounds with specific skill sets in computer hardware and software. They are actually repairing things beyond the component level.
24×7: What kind of processes did you need to put in place to deliver fast turnaround times to your customers?
Nguyen: The foundation of speed is being able to leverage technology. We look specifically for people that are very talented in hardware and software. Our ability to repair beyond the component level allows us to build new inventory, which is then immediately available as quickly as a courier or shipping service can deliver the product to our customer. The process of repairing down to and beyond the component level builds expertise about errors and symptoms and their resolutions.
We then translate that product knowledge of failure modes and symptoms into flow charts and training for our technical support team to help our customer diagnose problems over the telephone. Our technical support team is a 24/7 support center that’s available to all clinical engineers free of charge. This team’s responsibility is to field the calls from the engineers who are asking for help troubleshooting their equipment. On average, we’re able to help our customers in less than 9 minutes. Our knowledge base is stored in our cloud-based CRM and is readily available to everyone within the company.
24×7: So you don’t have people on the ground?
Nguyen: We do not have a field support team. Our organization is completely structured to assist clinical engineers who are already at the hospital site so they can repair their own equipment.
24×7: What is the benefit of that approach for your customers?
Nguyen: We perform repairs on parts and transducers, and ship them out to replace the damaged or failing parts and transducers in the field, restoring the ultrasound system back to a functional state. For the actual field service work, clinical engineers can leverage Summit as a tool to be able to service and support their own machine. This is an absolutely free service. In return, we do ask for them to order the parts or probes to repair the system from us.
24×7: What problems do you see your company solving?
Nguyen: The problem that we’re really solving is overall system downtime and lowering the total cost of ownership. We are able to get machines back up, on average, the next morning after the initial call. That’s when our shipping companies are able to deliver the part.
24×7: How has this model translated into growth?
Nguyen: We’re able to empower our customers to support their own equipment, and because we deliver fast service and high-quality products, we have grown truly by word of mouth. We actually have zero sales teams. It’s the quality of our support and the ability we provide to our customers to perform the repairs on their own systems without outsourcing the service.
24×7: You recently moved into a 32,000-square-foot facility. What can you do in your new space that wasn’t possible before?
Nguyen: We were previously based in two locations—we added the second location because we outgrew the first. With our move into the new facility, our intent was to bring the entire company back together to service our customers more quickly and also to allow room for further expansion. This was incredibly important because when a customer uses our support, they’re actually requiring the support of multiple departments.
Typically, it begins with technical support. Then, if they need an ultrasound probe or a part, our customer support team interfaces with our internal inventory or production teams to ensure our customers receive what they need. This communication is counted down to the minute, because a lot of East Coast customers actually work late until 8 pm. They know they can still get a part from us at 7:30 in the morning the next day because of our ability to ship up to 5 pm Pacific time.
24×7: What advice would you give to colleagues looking to start their own business?
Nguyen: Hire the smartest people you can find. When you are surrounded by really intelligent people, you all grow together and learn from each other every day. The ability to problem-solve and think critically comes with that intelligence. The problems that we run into are not the same problems every day.
For example, there are hundreds if not thousands of components on an ultrasound board. If we’re repairing that board, there may be some common problems here and there, but for the most part, they’re going to be all over the board. There is no single procedure that would encompass the variety of parts and probes. We continually build new protocols to properly address the nuances of each part and probe.
The same happens with our technical support team working with our customers. We may never have seen a particular error our customer is reporting, but by understanding the electrical path throughout the system, we can deduce what part is failing. That abstract thinking and problem-solving all comes with finding the best team that you can to work in the company.
24×7: What trends do you see in the industry?
Nguyen: Everything is moving toward more advanced technology—from the simplest equipment in the hospital all the way up to the most complex—because it’s cheaper, faster, and more reliable. What Summit has done very differently is that we’ve hired technologists and consider ourselves a technology company.
The industry will also see more regulation. Operating to FDA-compliance standards will be an obligation of all companies. As of the moment, the third-party market generally runs on loose FDA standards. We are operating to those standards in preparation for them to become the industry standard. Once that happens, the companies that are well-run and operate in compliance will become the best choice for hospitals to use.