Every four minutes, one woman is diagnosed with breast cancer globally. The age bracket of women diagnosed with breast cancer is also observed to be increasing. So far, the method of cancer detection has been around with mammography, a technique through which malignant lumps are detected in the breast using density differences. The use of X-rays in this process often causes radiation problems.
This was the case until Geetha Manjunath and Nidhi Mathur introduced Niramai Technologies, an artificial intelligence based healthcare startup that uses a technology called Thermalytix. It helps with early detection of breast cancer in a way that is safe, non-touch, radiation-free, and low-cost.
In Sanskrit, NIRAMAI means to be free of illness, while the acronym expands as Non-Invasive Risk Assessment with Machine Intelligence. The Bengaluru-based startup, founded in 2016, aims to bridge the gap between the demand and supply in quality healthcare.
Brains behind the science
When Geetha was 18, she was ranked 12th in Karnataka state engineering and 15th in medical Common Entrance Test. Had it not been engineering, Geetha would have been a doctor. Interestingly, she is now the CEO of Niramai that combines both her interests.
In 1984, Geetha was a student in one of the first batches of undergraduate course in computer science, at Visvesvaraya College of Engineering in Bengaluru . She was one of the 10 girls in the engineering college. Upon graduation , Geetha was an engineering topper and won a gold medal from the state. During her final year, she spent her time working on a project at Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, to build a four-node parallel computer.
Geetha went on to get a PhD in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) from IISc.
A career in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) was meant to be for Geetha right from when she started working on the first supercomputer built in India as a member of the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing(C-DAC) in India. (After her Master’s, Geetha got the opportunity to work at C-DAC. The code that she developed while working with C-DAC is used by them even today.)
Giving credit to her father for the constant motivation, Geetha says, “My father was not an engineer. But he had an engineer’s mindset. He would always find ways of repairing broken things at home, and would encourage us to do so as well. It was looking at him that I started tinkering and looking at how products work. So it was a no-brainer that I chose science.”
Taking science to the masses
Between 2013 and 2015, Geetha and Nidhi worked on conflating artificial intelligence and breast cancer screening, leading them to figure out a way to non-intrusively locate a tumour. Their team was highly competent in the field of AI, and worked very closely with radiologists and oncologists to develop the quintessential solution.
“We feel that late detection of breast cancer is a global problem. We want to reach every woman on earth. We aim to expand to other Asian countries next year and Europe, and the US after that. The technology is also helpful for other types of diseases, and we can look at detecting other abnormalities in the long term,” Geetha says.
Today, Geetha and Nidhi’s startup owns nine US patents and one Canadian patent. It is the only Indian company listed in the 2019 cohort of AI 100 Startups in the World by global business data intelligence platform CB Insights.
Niramai has also raised $6 million in funding from investors like Dream Incubator and Beenext. It has established itself in 10 Indian cities through tie-ups with various hospitals and health centres and is now trying to conduct clinical trials in Japan and Europe.
The Niramai team is setting up a mobile screening van to visit rural areas along with the equipment and enable more women to be screened for early-stage breast cancer.
As technology plays the most impactful role in healthcare now more than ever before, this duo is leaving no stone unturned in contributing to the dynamic field of cancer detection.