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Indian AI startup in talks to raise $20m to fight tuberculosis

Qure.Ai tackles radiologist shortage in villages with automated diagnosis

The Mumbai-based startup Qure.Ai uses deep-learning artificial intelligence to quickly diagnose TB from X-rays and other medical imaging. (Photo courtesy of the company)

MUMBAI -- Indian health care startup Qure.Ai is in talks with venture capital funds to raise $20 million to expand its fight against tuberculosis, the Nikkei Asian Review learned.

The Mumbai-based company, which uses deep-learning artificial intelligence to quickly diagnose the disease from X-rays and other medical imaging, has been incubated by Fractal Analytics with between $25 million and $30 million since its launch.

In an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review, Qure.Ai co-founder and CEO Prashant Warrier said the new funds would be used to increase the number of annual image scans it can process to 2.5 million by March 2020 from the current 1 million, with a focus on tuberculosis.

According to the government-run National Health Portal, India accounts for one-fourth of the estimated 10 million TB patients worldwide. In 2015, about 2.8 million cases were reported resulting in 480,000 deaths.

Some of the main causes of TB are smoking, malnutrition and alcoholism, according to the portal.

Qure.Ai CEO Prashant Warrier (Photo courtesy of the company)

"Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said he wants to eradicate TB by 2025, but everybody in the field will tell you it is not possible," said Warrier. "Diagnosis is a primary challenge. We are trying to solve it by making the process simpler and making the technology available everywhere in the country."

There are about 10,000 radiologists in India, or 1 for every 100,000 patients, most of whom are concentrated in tier one and tier two cities, leaving a huge gap in coverage. In villages, where most medical imaging is done in mobile vans, people wait two to three weeks for results. During that time, the disease can grow due to the delay in receiving medication.

The Indian government may soon rely on AI to help solve the problem. "AI provides a unique opportunity for the health sector, bringing efficiency, saving resources and bringing accuracy in interpretation and enhancing quality of service delivery," local newspaper Mint recently quoted the Ministry of Health and Family welfare as saying.

Qure.Ai's diagnoses a patient's health from a scan taken by medical professionals. First the patient is scanned, after which the data is uploaded to the cloud via Qure.Ai's portal. An AI-based system performs the diagnoses then reports the results to the professional waiting on-site. If the test comes back positive, the patient's sputum is immediately collected and sent for further testing. If the patient is confirmed as suffering from TB, treatment can begin in a few days.

The startup claims its chest scans have an accuracy rate of over 90%. It employs deep learning to automate chest X-ray diagnoses. When used as a point-of-care screening tool followed by immediate bacteriological confirmation, diagnosis time is significantly reduced.

Dr. Rakesh Puttewar, a medical practitioner in the western town of Nagpur, said his hospital sees about 25 to 30 patients with respiratory complaints a day.

"Qure.Ai definitely helps in early identification... and even if microbiological confirmation comes back negative, the patient can be treated on clinical basis," Puttewar said. "The use of AI definitely helps diagnosis for many other lung diseases."

For 25-year-old Krishna Kol, the fast turnaround oh his X-ray report meant he could quickly receive needed medications. "Before, people would receive their report in two to three days, sometimes longer," Kol said.

Qure.Ai co-founders Pooja Rao and Warrier, an International Max Planck Research School doctorate in neurosciences and Georgia Tech alumni, respectively, established the company in 2016. In addition to rural health care centers, the startup has tied up with several big hospital chains in India and 14 other countries, for a total of 50 locations.

It hopes to make further advances globally by providing a cheap, accurate alternative to current diagnostic procedures. In the U.S., for example, the company's scan costs $1.00 compared with the $15 to $20 price tag of traditional methods, he said.

The use of AI technology in health care is estimated to reach $36.1 billion by 2025, up from $21.1 billion in 2018, according to a report by online search service Report Linker.

"Increasingly large and complex data set available in the form of big data and growing need to reduce the increasing health care cost drive the growth of this market," said the report, adding "improving computing power and declining cost of hardware are other key factors driving this market."

According to market analysis company Tracxn, there are 2,716 health tech startups in India, including unicorn Practo, Indian tycoon Ratan Tata-backed Curefit, drug-selling platform Netmeds, and clinical genomics services provider MedGenome. However, only a few employ AI for diagnosis.

Warrier said one of the major challenges to his business is convincing hospitals to adopt the technology.

"Creating a case for clients to use our product is a challenge. A number of people are not sure about the use of AI. They think that if they use AI, radiologists will lose their jobs," he said. "The other [issue] is [navigating] different regulatory processes around the world, which adds to our costs."

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