Medtech's AI boost for improving healthcare
A five-day Medtech BOOST conference culminated in six teams pitching investors for improved treatments for sufferers of bi-polar disorder, Alzheimer’s and self-harming.
The opening pitch – and winner of the first of three awards – by Robert Batt presented CAM.AI’s psychological support platform for the self-harm community. CAM.AI is a partnership between Cambridge University academics, social media companies and children's charities to counteract the internet’s negative impact on young people's mental health.
“Young people would rather talk to a chatbot from a very early age,” Robert, who runs a London-based private adolescent treatment clinic, told the audience in the Bradfield Centre’s auditorium. "CAM.AI is a chatbox-based service aimed at the millions of young people who search out self-harm images online – 1.35million such searches in YouTube every year for English speakers, and 109,000 a month on Instagram.
“Every two seconds someone is searching for self-harm material. Our algorithm firstly detects people looking at such content. Then a pop-up appears on the screen inviting engagement and support, saying: ‘We notice you’re looking at self-harm images, can we offer some help?’. If they say ‘yes’, the second stage is we direct the user away to our anonymous server to a chatbox which gives them CBT-based advice.”
The organisation's "CBT-lite" support will become a “private study” with Google and the University of Cambridge later this year. The business model is highly modulated.
“The most unpopular thing we say is that we’re going to give it away for free,” Robert said after winning the Best Presentation of the Day award. “That drives people mad, but the business model is that we license the service to social media organisations.”
Getting Google (which owns YouTube) or Facebook (which owns Instagram) to pay for CAM.AI’s service is a game-changer. It should appeal to Silicon Valley companies whose share values have plummeted as the consequences of social media use/misuse take their toll, not least among the younger generation, who know of no pre-internet world to insulate their vulnerabilities and where peer pressures are too often insufferable. Expect even Nick Clegg to be able to frame the positive message it sends out if Facebook is prepared to clear up its own backyard.
The second award, for Best Impact on Mental Health Today, went to Equilibrium, who offer digital assistance to bi-polar disorder (BPD) sufferers.
Their presentation highlighted the issues faced by the UK’s 1.4million BPD citizens, of whom “30 per cent will attempt suicide at some point in their lives”. BPD costs the nation £342million annually, and Equilibrium reckon “60 per cent of that spend could be avoided” if its technology – a wireless system involving eight electrodes attached to the user in VR headset fashion – is adopted.
“Our model detects mood changes,” the audience heard, “and enables users to make changes in behaviour before the mood kicks in... we’ve worked with BPD patients for eight years.”
This early warning detection system has a vital function, because “as soon as patients move away from their normal regime they start to become manic or oppressive”.
However, anyone familiar with BPD cycles knows that sometimes the sufferer wants to dump the medication, which can be seen as restrictive. Not a few BPD sufferers feel their disorder actually elevates their lives to a new level of meaning, and aspire to take ownership of their condition, in the same way perhaps that Greta Thunberg, the teenage climate change activist who has Asperger’s syndrome, says that Asperger’s is “a superpower”. It's a tricky area with lots of thin ice...
The third and final BOOST award, for Best Impact in Healthy Ageing, went to Cambridge Memtech, who focus on early detection – and the cost of clinical trials.
“99.6 per cent of Alzheimer’s disease drug trials fail,” says Samuel Bell, who is joined on-stage by Adaptive Brain Lab colleagues Zoe Kourtzi, Joseph Giorgio and Jan Cross-Zamirski. Just 30 per cent of people presenting for clinical trials are accepted, and Memtech believes they can push this up to 80 per cent, which would save around £3million on X-rays were there to be fewer scans per trial. Early detection is seen as the key to slowing Alzheimer’s, was very much the message of the afternoon.
The three other teams at the conference – subtitled 'Developing Artificial Intelligence to Reframe Psychological Support' – were:
- MoreSafe: Applies machine learning to otherwise free text in the medical domain, linking up different data sources and improving predictions and therefore outcomes.
- Cosma: Has a 60-patient trial currently ongoing at the University of Leicester which involves digital monitoring and therapeutic solutions for early-stage dementia sufferers.
- Happy Gut: Poor gut care increases the possibility of dementia, so Happy Gut “analyse your unique microbiome and prescribe a nutrition plan appropriate for you”.
Participants emerged from the week effusive about the conference and the sector's potential.
James Parton, managing director of the Bradfield Centre, said: "This was an incredibly ambitious programme, and over the last week we've seen this talented, diverse group rapidly develop interesting AI ideas into viable healthcare tech concepts."
Joop Tanis, MedTech consulting director at Health Enterprise East, said: “It was great to see such strong appetite among clinical, academic and industry-based teams for AI-driven medtech ideas to tackle healthy ageing and mental health.
“As mentors, we supported the venture teams by helping them understand the NHS customer perspective, as well as the technology and business aspects of their innovation. As judges during the final pitching sessions, it was very pleasing to see just how much participants had gained from the MedTech BOOST event. Thanks to the support from MedTech Boost, the winning technologies are now on an even stronger footing. We look forward to following their progress in the coming months.”
The judging panel, by the way, was beyond stellar. You only have to look at the picture caption for the team (above) to realise how seriously Cambridge takes this sector. One of them, Michael Anstey, a partner at Cambridge Innovation Capital (CIC), said: "I was thrilled to be on the judging panel and extremely impressed with the quality of the presentations and ideas. Cambridge is becoming increasingly strong in applying AI to healthcare, and the six companies that presented were great examples of emerging innovation in the sector.
"The themes of mental health and healthy ageing are especially relevant at the moment, both with a large unmet need. Addressing these challenges will require cooperation between industry, academia, and the healthcare system. CIC aims to support early stage companies by not only providing growth capital, but also helping to bring together key stakeholders in the Cambridge ecosystem, and beyond, to support these businesses."