Tackling the Big C
AIndra Systems wants to make cervical cancer screening affordable for the massesBy Krishnendu
A bunch of techies in India’s Silicon Valley has just one agenda on their mind now: to reduce the incidence of the second most common cancer among the women of our country. A recent report by Globocan has alarming news for India: the country accounts for one-third of the total number of cervical cancer cases in the world. Recognizing the pressing need for better and more effective screening methods, AIndra Systems, a Bangalore-based tech startup, is creating products that use artificial intelligence, with a focus on computer vision.
The startup is on a mission to create a deeper impact in India’s healthcare sector with the help of deep learning. “Our vision is to implement mass cervical cancer screening using AI and help the 330 million Indian women in the at-risk age bracket,” says Adarsh Natarajan, founder, and CEO of AIndra Systems. “With early detection and appropriate treatment, up to 90 percent of deaths can be avoided.”
A socially conscious techie, Natarajan envisioned a company that would create a positive impact on society through its activities. The IIM graduate worked with several top-tier organizations for over a decade before taking the entrepreneurial plunge in 2012. Identifying the huge gap in the screening system for cervical cancer, he was driven to using deep learning to make diagnoses faster and better.
The AIndra device, called CervAstra, observes the results of Pap smear tests using a digital microscope that has an on-board computing unit. The new system is a move up from the traditional Pap smear test as it uses computer vision to identify markers of cervical tumours better than traditional microscopes.
The readings classify the samples as either normal or abnormal and transfer the results to a pathologist. The pathologist’s result is then automatically learned by the device to build a database. Smart alternatives like these are just what our country’s healthcare sector needs. In India, those living in smaller cities and in rural areas as well as the poor have found it difficult to gain easy access to cancer screening and treatment options. Natarajan hopes that this scenario can be changed with cost-effective and efficient systems like AIndra. “Our solution is a boon for far-flung areas that are economically backward and do not have access to affordable and reliable screening centers,” says Natarajan, about his products that are disrupting the market. “These devices are also very easy to operate and hence, require very little training time.”
However, like any other burgeoning startup, AIndra’s journey has not been an easy one. Talking about the many hurdles it had to cross, Natarajan says one of AIndra’s main challenges was creating AI products for the healthcare industry. “The fact that despite being a technology powerhouse, India imports about 70% of its medical devices and fails to provide an affordable and accessible means to quality healthcare is disheartening,” he says. Working in a niche technology area, it also faced the challenge of creating awareness of the technology among customers and articulating the value proposition in a manner that resonated with them. “Since AI is relatively new in the field of healthcare, there are questions that arise time and again about its accuracy and reliability. We’re hoping to answer these concerns by the data we produce through CervAstra,” says Natarajan.
The company has partnered with several skill development institutes, healthcare systems, government services, micro-finance institutions, educational institutes, and insurance companies to develop novel products based on object recognition using computer vision as a tool. AIndra also collaborates with renowned oncology institutes and non-profit organizations, like Kidwai Memorial Institute of Oncology, RV Metropolis, and Cancer Care India to conduct on-field trials. In the near future, AIndra hopes to exploit its computational pathology platform to scale it in the detection of other cancers that share similar detection characteristics with cervical cancer, like oral cancer and leukemia. “The idea that one can screen for cervical cancer is in itself powerful; what AIndra is doing is game-changing innovation,” says KC Bhushan, Senior Advisor at social enterprise incubator Villgro, which has invested in the startup. “It has the potential to change the scenario in India.” AIndra Systems is sprinting towards fulfilling its meaningful mission of making India healthy. Helping Indian women tackle an appalling and potentially life-threatening disease, the startup is shaping a future filled with bright smiles.