Patience pays off for Yale neuroscientist- turned-inventor

An alumnus was building educational apps for the iPod before Apple was ready for him. The company finally saw the light.
An alumnus was building educational apps for the iPod before Apple was ready for him. The company finally saw the light.
Courtesy of Mark Williams

Medical students who’ve studied on an iPhone while waiting in line for a latte have Mark Williams, Ph.D. ’96, to thank for helping break the chains that once bound them to the library.

After completing his Ph.D. in neuroscience at the School of Medicine and postdoctoral research at Duke University, Williams found that basic science research wasn’t for him. With interests spanning neuroanatomy, art, design, communications, and business, he asked, “What’s a career that you can build from that?”

Somewhere between the time that a computer cropped up in every home and a smartphone appeared in every pocket, Williams found the answer. He first developed educational materials on CD-ROM for medical students in the late-1990s. Eventually he was designing apps for the video iPod before there was a way for consumers to buy such apps. In 2008, when Apple launched the App Store—the platform through which iPod touch and iPhone users now buy software—four of Williams’ products were among the first 500. Williams’ company, Modality, produced two Frommer’s travel guides, Netter’s Anatomy Flash Cards and Netter’s Neuroscience Flash Cards.

Williams’ inspiration came when he started teaching neuroscience to first-year med students at Duke in 1997. He wanted to tackle an educational challenge. “How could we reinforce the basic concepts outside the classroom so that class time is really about problem-solving, collaboration, and building relationships between student and mentor?”

In the late 1990s, at a time when every textbook came with a supplemental CD-ROM, Williams developed a neuroanatomy reference on CD-ROM through startup company Pyramis. Users could select the name of a part of the brain, see images of it, then slice it and rotate it in 3-D. “It’s silly today, but the Internet was only just emerging. This was a great way to see an image and learn where it’s located in the brain,” Williams said.

Williams left Duke in 2005 to focus on software development and to start a company which eventually became Modality. He remains in Chapel Hill, where he continues to develop new technologies.

As personal technology moved from the desktop to the palm of the hand, so did Modality.

When the market shifted toward digital flashcards, textbooks, and guides, Williams and his team learned to transform already digitized content into applications for handheld devices. They could format any digital book for use on an iPod. The only problem was that Apple did not allow software development for the iPod at this time. Williams and his team waited for a day when Apple would recognize their worth.

“That day came. We got the call,” Williams said. They made a deal for Modality to sell its products to video iPod users.

This was in 2007, when users had to go to an Apple store—in person—to buy a code on a card so they could download the app to their computers and transfer it to their iPods. Droves of publishers clamored to get onto the gizmos that their campus reps were seeing plugged into the ears of college students everywhere.

Modality transformed a number of titles, but Williams was most excited about medical illustrator Frank Netter’s products, which are published by Elsevier. “Netter revolutionized medical illustration, so when we could bring that to the iPod, it was really exciting,” he said.

The users were fans, too.

“A student said to me, ‘Dr. Williams, I learned five new brain terms while I was waiting in line for my latte today.’ ”

In 2008, at the Apple World-wide Developers Conference, former Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced the launch of the App Store, which allowed users to download apps directly from their phones. Onstage beside him were the dozen developers whose products would stock the store. Among them was Williams.

Over the next two years, Modality launched more than 150 educational apps, including one that allowed users to cross-reference images in countless anatomy atlases with their own CT and MR images. “Clinicians saw the value of having their device in the clinic and showing the anatomy to a patient. It was a real opportunity for patient engagement.”

In 2012, shortly after Epocrates bought the company, Williams left Modality to pursue projects on his own. He wants to develop apps to maximize relationship-building opportunities for patients and doctors the way his educational software does for students and teachers. “Technology should be clearing the way for these relationships to take hold,” he said.