Technological advances are now accelerating faster than ever. The past decade saw the emergence of many disruptive technologies such as Big Data, deep learning, and Artificial Intelligence (AI), blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological domains.
Startups have also been very instrumental in adopting these disruptive technologies to bring a change in our lives and the society as a whole.
Thirty-five-year-old Pooja Rao, who pursued medicine to bring about a change in the healthcare sector, tapped into the opportunity at the right time and founded AI startup Qure.ai in 2016. The startup aims to make diagnostic imaging like X-rays and MRIs affordable and accessible.
An MBBS graduate from Maharashtra University of Health Sciences, it was while pursuing her PhD in neuroscience at International Max Planck Research School in Germany that she learnt about machine learning and how to code and apply it in her research. Pooja also freelanced as a data scientist for a while after that.
When she starting four years ago and even now, she notes that doctor-patient ratio in India is poor and that it was difficult to ensure accurate and timely diagnosis for every patient. On the other hand, advanced technologies were changing healthcare for better across the world.
This led Pooja to think why not harness the same technology to interpret medical images like X-rays, CT scan, and MRI scan. Thus, she ventured into healthcare sector and started Qure.ai along with co-founder Prashant Warier. Based in Mumbai, the startup is now a 30 plus member team.
Artificial Intelligence Reading
The Mumbai-based startup has developed two AI-based software products - QXR and QER. While QXR reads chest X-rays and detects chest abnormalities, tuberculosis, or lung infections, QER reads CT scans, head injuries, trauma, and intracerebral haemorrhage, among other conditions.
“It uses AI technology to automatically determine whether the X-ray is normal. If not, the software will mark the abnormality on the X-ray,” Pooja explains.
The software is trained on a large set of data, which are sample X-rays and scans containing different conditions with their abnormality labelled. According to Pooja, QXR is trained on around 2.5 million images, whereas QER has had an input of around 300,000 CT scans.
Additionally, Pooja emphasises the startup is especially focussed on research and development and has published a study in The Lancet, a peer-reviewed journal.
Pooja says, this is because they aid doctors and medical practitioners in a big way, especially in times of emergency. “Among a pile of 10 or 15 head CT scans, it can suggest which among them has a bleed. If you can save even 5-10 minutes, it becomes very valuable for the patient in the long term,” she explains.
Scaling and Solution
Today, the startup’s products are adopted by health practitioners and organisations at 60 sites across 15 countries including France, Brazil, the US, Philippines, and Pakistan, among others.
However, Pooja shares that in the beginning there were challenges while serving in India’s rural areas. While the software was initially designed to read digital copies of X-ray, patients in the villages would bring their X-ray films.
In order to fill this gap, the Qure.ai team developed a mobile app which can capture the X-ray film clearly for reading. Currently, the app for doctors and practitioners is not named or officially launched in the market yet.
Technologically skilled and familiar with medical space for over a decade now, Pooja believes that healthcare is the sector to be for any entrepreneur. “There are so many gaps in the healthcare sector that can be filled with technology that it is just a great place to start up,” Pooja shares.
Being a Woman Entrepreneur
Born and brought up in Chennai, Pooja grew up watching her mother enjoy being a full-time software engineer in the 1970s and 1980s. So, it was natural for Pooja to become an independent woman and dream of a career and plan her future.
However, the 35-year-old entrepreneur shares that men tend to make sexist remarks, knowingly or unknowingly. She recalls the time two entrepreneurs requested her to deliver a talk on AI in healthcare.
“Towards the end, they would say something like it is very inspiring for women in that organisation or university. It comes quite easily to ask you to spend time while simultaneously placing limits on the value by saying it will only be useful for women.”
Pooja points out that nobody would ever tell a man that his talk would be inspiring for men in the organisation.
Pooja says matters like these and second-guessing women’s opinion and pay gap are not taken seriously enough.
Regardless, Pooja shares that it is mostly women in the industry who more than live up to their words. Speaking from her experience, Pooja shares that despite all the frenzy and tall promises made in the startup environment, it is women who remain on the ground, promise little, and over deliver at the end of the day.
These qualities alone is what it takes to be better entrepreneurs and leaders in the fast-changing ecosystem.