RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia have long been feared by many, especially those with first-hand experience.
Vik Chandra, CEO and co-founder of uMETHOD is familiar with this disease having seen it in both his grandmother and mother-in-law. According to Chandra, there are 17 and a half million Medicare-aged patients somewhere on a spectrum of cognitive decline, and about 150,000 doctors across the country caring for these patients. He is passionate about improving the experience of those with the disease and aiding doctors in that task.
“This is personal to me,” said Chandra when we spoke over Zoom. “This is personal to everybody on my team. And thus our mission is to ensure that the doctors are providing the best possible care to the patients going through cognitive decline and that it is accessible across the world.”
That care just got a little easier with the recent announcement that Quest Diagnostics, a Fortune 500 company, is partnering with uMETHOD, allowing their AI-powered RestoreU Dementia panel to be available for physician use nationwide.
WRAL TechWire Jen McFarland spoke with Chandra about this development and how the uMETHOD company, now approaching its ten-year anniversary, got into AI early.
A lightly edited transcript of the interview is included below.
- The partnership with Quest is a huge step forward for you. How did that develop?
So when we created the technology we had to figure out how to get it distributed within the healthcare space. The path to actually bringing a solution to market and to scale it very often isn’t clear for technology-based solutions, and what you find very often is that the [medical] industry has significant inertia because any new solution requires change, and the physician’s utilization of products and technologies; you have to overcome that inertia.
So we try tried out a few different paths, but ultimately a core part of the way our artificial intelligence operates, it requires the patients to go through a fairly broad set of blood tests. And because that medical testing is an essential part of it, we worked to establish a model where we were partnered with medical laboratories, so that the entire process for both the physician and the patient could be streamlined.
We were fortunate to get a contract put together with the largest lab in the state of Arizona, called Sonora Quest. It’s a lab that’s very well recognized for being an innovative lab and for bringing high-quality solutions to market. Sonora Quest is partially owned by the larger Quest Diagnostics. Then it made sense for Quest Diagnostics to actually look at a product like ours. But they wanted to examine our solution themselves and run a pilot to ensure that their end customers, the physicians, actually liked the solution. So we’ve spent the last couple of years getting our solution very, very thoroughly looked at by Quest Diagnostics.
- AI is all the rage now but when did you really start to dig into it as a solution?
So that was very, very early in the life of the company. As we were working to lay out the direction of what our company was going to do, there was a basic mission that we had, which is to drive impact to society. At the same time, because of the Affordable Care Act, there was an exploding amount of data that physicians had access to on each of their patients. That data continues to accumulate every day. And there are 700,000 new research papers every year. No physician could keep up with that. Many of them conflict with each other, so there tends to be it tends to be a lot of noise in there as well.
Doctors had already come to the conclusion that [dementia] was a “complex disease” as opposed to a “simple disease.” A simple disease has one cause; complex diseases have multiple causes. So it’s a complex disease and each patient has multiple causes of cognitive decline that are active simultaneously. And they vary from one patient to another. So it became recognized as a data problem where we really had to take very large amounts of data, everything from patients’ genetics to their blood tests or medications, their medical history, lifestyle information, sleep, exercise, diet, all of that has to be processed. And then do two things. One, figure out which of the underlying causes of cognitive decline are actually active in this person. And two, what is the correct combination of treatments to apply to this patient?
The way we had to go about solving this was to bring together a very diverse set of AI algorithms to process this very diverse set of data and in the end, deliver conclusions to doctors in a care plan. A care plan looks like a report that contains information that the doctors utilize to decide on the next steps for the patient, including very specific recommendations on prescriptions to add or change, supplements, lifestyle, diet, etc., all of that is laid out in a very prescriptive manner for the doctor.
- The partnership with Quest represents a huge jump in the use of the RestoreU Dementia panel. What is the overhead for supporting this across such a large audience?
This is the perfect application for technology. There’s such a broad body of data that we have to process on each patient and ultimately create a care plan. Our systems are designed to scale as the load increases. What we had to ensure was that we built our systems in a manner so that the process was automated information comes in electronically care plans go out electronically. Now, that’s obviously a very simplistic view. There is there are human touch points where you go, ‘Oh, this patient got something unusual that we’ve never seen before it needs to be reviewed’ and so on, but a, we’ve done 10,000 patients already. So we’ve done this so many times and our system has been exercised so many times and it has continued to evolve to allow us to scale this in a meaningful manner to serve the needs of those 17 and a half million patients across the country.
The second reason you want to apply technology is it evolves. If you look across all the industries, where do the costs actually go down over time? The technology industry. And being able to reduce that cost is essential because if I need to get to the point where I’m serving the needs of the grandmother in Nigeria who’s in cognitive decline the costs have to come down not only of the processing, the creation of the care plan, but the cost of the entire care has to come to continue to come down. So in our system, not only are we delivering the correct set of recommended treatments to the doctors, but we are also working to continue to optimize the ultimate cost of care that’s delivered so that eventually what we have is the best possible care, available to patients across the country, across the world.
- Obviously, this is a huge development for dementia patients but I know you work on several other projects. Can you tell me what is in the works for the development of other uMETHOD solutions?
So again, from a technology perspective, you don’t go and build a large system that solves one particular problem. You design it to be reusable. So the domain that our AI platform is designed to serve isn’t specific. It isn’t oncology; it isn’t pediatric diseases. It is those complex chronic diseases. This was a very strategic choice when we went down this path because according to the CDC, 83% of our healthcare spend goes up towards those complex chronic diseases. So we do expect to apply our product or technology to other adjacent diseases, other complex chronic diseases.
One of these is depression. That’s obviously a disease linked to the brain, but it also happens to be a complex chronic disease. Other potentials are multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s, both of which are neurodegenerative diseases just like dementia. Other complex chronic diseases are like diabetes, although there are a lot of other companies that are investing time and energy in diabetes. We want to continue to bring our solutions into disease spaces where there isn’t a lot of time and attention going into it.
- Approaching your 10-year anniversary of starting the company do you have any reflections on where you are now, in particular, seeing the development of AI in recent months?
Well, I think the time is timing is great. When we started we knew we were ahead of the time. But we also understood that it was not going to be an overnight success and because of the inertia that exists within the healthcare industry, it was going to be a process.
Now I’ll admit it’s been a longer process than I ever imagined. But I think that’s this part of the startup game to some degree. Between me and my co-founder, this is our fourth startup in the Raleigh area. As founders, we’re eternal optimists. We always think things go faster than they would otherwise. As you get into my age group, you also tend to become more realistic that it will take longer, but look if we weren’t half glass half full guys, we probably would never do any startup right?
There’s a lot more work for us to do. The underlying mission of having an impact on society and being able to do so by application of technology, it’s a rare opportunity. So me and my co-founder, we’re going to be working on this and this company for a long period of time.
Editor’s note: Capitol Broadcasting, the corporate parent of WRAL TechWire, is an investor in uMETHOD.