$10m: How an SA invention scored global exposure
Stories of South African innovations making it big on the global stage are few and far between. FNB may have been labelled the worlds’ most innovative bank, while Eric Merrifield and Aubrey Krüger’s dolos invention has prevented a large chunk of East London and other parts of the world disappearing into the ocean, and Pratley Putty made it into the US space programme and was used on Neil Armstrong’s moon module. Now SA is intrigued by a medical device that made it into hit US medical drama Grey’s Anatomy.
Despite some isolated cases of brilliance, South Africa is generally not regarded as a global centre of excellence when it comes to innovation. But we think we may have found a home-grown innovation gem: funded, developed, built and sold from South Africa. ( We do, however, have to speedily acknowledge that it took it being exposed to us via the American hospital
drama Grey’s Anatomy for us to become aware of it and give it the attention that it deserves.)
Enter Lodox: a full body X-ray scanner, manufactured by Sandton-based Lodox Systems, which was developed as an anti-theft device by De Beers in the Eighties to thwart the theft of gemstones in diamond mining. It was adapted for medical use under the auspices of the University of Cape Town at Groote Schuur Hospital and found its way onto one of the world’s mostwatched hospital dramas.
Lodox is a great example of South African innovation made good and it is garnering a wholly disproportionate amount of media attention. Disproportionate because there are only 40 of the machines in existence and the 10-year-old company that makes them is yet to turn a profit.
Lodox has delivered machines to hospitals in SA, the US, Taiwan, Venezuela, Switzerland, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Thirteen are currently in service in South Africa, primarily in public hospitals such as Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital, but some are in private units too, including Netcare’s Milpark hospital. The greatest number, 14, are in use in the US, including at LA County hospital where the device was discovered by the Grey’s Anatomy producers.
In its industrial application its resolution was good enough to detect a 1-carat diamond, as small as a fifth of a gram, being secreted inside an individual. In its medical application it is able at the f lick of a switch to show bone and soft tissue, allowing doctors to make a speedier, potentially life-saving diagnosis in mere minutes.
The diamond indust r y needed a device that was quick enough to use to ensure that workers emerging from their shifts could be processed quickly and effectively without impacting operations.
A team of engineers involved in the original project left De Beers in 2002 to work on a medical application for the device and found support at Groote Schuur, world famous for the pioneering heart transplant work of Chris Barnard.
Local fans of Grey’s Anatomy would have been nonplussed by the appearance of a new miracle device on the show on Monday, 10 June. There was no commentary about its providence or the fact that it was a creation out of the developing world. For a marketer, it was a gift from heaven. The unit was given a demi-god status as doctors on the program debated its best possible application as the technology received more than a dozen unsolicited, free mentions in a single episode.
“We didn’t go looking for them. They came to us,” explains Lodox CEO Pieter De Beer. The producers of ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy came across the machine while researching a new-look ER unit for the series at Los Angeles County hospital, one of more than half a dozen units in the US that uses this device.
The producers, who pride themselves in exhibiting the most realistic possible sets on Grey’s Anatomy, were told that in order to keep up with the times, they needed to have a Lodox machine in their emergency rooms.
“Grey’s Anatomy was very kind to us. They contacted us and we supplied them with a unit that was on its way to a client to use in the series. Nobody paid anybody. We placed the machine in studio at our cost and they have not asked for payment,” says De Beer, who is eager to grab the opportunity presented by the device’s new found-fame to grow the business that has f inally been thrust into the global medical spotlight.
It’s the sort of exposure that manufacturers of medical equipment around the world would kill for. Product placement is a widely used device for new launches and for promotional activity and comes at a premium to traditional advertising. The big difference is that Lodox has received its exposure free and the endorsement is powerful.
“A 30-second commercial during Grey’s Anatomy in the US sells for $200 000,” says Media Shop MD Chris Botha. “Inprogram exposure can be worth up to five times the value and when you have actors talking about a device, that is a massive endorsement especially when they talk about technical specifics of a piece of medical equipment.”
Indeed, anyone watching could be left in no doubt about the benefits of having a Lodox machine in an emergency room.
The machine used in episode 18 in
The Lodox machine as featured on the 9th season of Grey’s Anatomy