I was sitting in StartupHQ in San Francisco last week when a couple of familiar faces from Australia walked up… enter Hon Weng Chong and Andrew Lin – the founders of StethoCloud. We’ve been meaning to interview the team for a while here on The Fetch considering the potential humankind impact and mission behing their work – combining health and tech, so the timing was perfect to get a few questions in.
Photo by Business Week
What’s your background?
By day, I’m a recently graduated medical doctor. I’m also a mobile app developer by night with experience developing iPhone, Android and Windows Phone apps. In addition to mobile apps, I also develop for the web.
How did you get the idea for StethoCloud and what does it do?
Having been encouraged by a friend who had participated in Microsoft’s Imagine Cup in 2011, I had decided to enter the competition this year to develop a technological solution that would address a global health issue. At the same time, I had just started my pediatrics rotation at The Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne and had recently learnt about the global disease burden of childhood pneumonia. I was surprised to learn that childhood pneumonia was the single largest killer of children under the age of five (more than measles, malaria and HIV combined) yet the treatment for it was through widely available and affordable antibiotics.
It struck me then that one of the major bottlenecks in reducing the mortality from pneumonia was in its late recognition and diagnosis. If we could help health workers in developing countries who are at the frontline of diagnosing and treating this disease, we might have a chance of reducing the mortality from it.
The idea for StethoCloud came from a brainstorming session that I had with my mentor A/Prof Jim Black from the Nossal Institute for Global Health. We had initially dreamt up the idea of a stethoscope attachment for smartphones that would allow health workers in developing countries to record a child’s breath sounds and have it transmitted to a physician in a hospital or even all the way to the US or Australia for remote diagnosis. Midway through the development of the stethoscope peripheral it occurred to us that another bottleneck in the system was the lack of trained physicians both in the developing and developed world who would be able to perform the remote diagnosis. This realization caused us to pivot the project from solely developing the hardware to also include a cloud-computing component to test our hypothesis that given a large enough data set of physiological data, could a machine learning algorithm learn from diagnostic examples and potentially replicate the thought processes of a physician.
How did you take it from nothing to winning This Week in Startups and getting TechCrunch’ed?
I’m very grateful to have such a wonderful and passionate team. All members of the team are either studying or working full-time and we spent every scrap of free time we had to work on this project in order to turn it from an idea to reality.
It also helps that we’re building a solution that might have a strong social impact. This social aspect is what I believe got us noticed by This Week in Startups and TechCrunch.
What are some of the challenges of innovating in the medical space?
Right now, the intersection of mobile technology and medical space is like the Wild West.
Traditionally, innovations in the medical space have only came from biotech and pharmaceutical giants who were governed by very strict rules and regulations by bodies such as the FDA. Conversely today, the only form of regulatory body that exists in the mobile apps space is Apple’s AppStore approval process. This has resulted in much confusion over the state of regulation of mHealth apps that the industry is slowly trying to solve.
Another obstacle is the fact that medical innovations have a hard time getting funded. An example of this would be Kickstarters refusing to sponsor any health or medical device ideas. This is further complicated by the need for large amounts of capital in order to survive the lengthy process of passing regulatory approval.
Along with regulatory approval, medicine is still quite a conservative industry that requires strong scientific evidence that an intervention works. This results in having to run lengthy and expensive scientific and clinical research to prove to our peers of the safety and efficacy of any innovation.
Who else do you think is doing cool stuff in these industries?
AliveCor have built an iPhone case that turns the iPhone into a portable electrocardiogram and have recently been cleared by the FDA.
Sanofi BGStar have an iPhone attachment that talks to a glucometer to transmit blood glucose levels directly to the smartphone for diabetics.
Max Little’s research amazing stuff if he can prove it works.
What related events do you find rewarding in Melbourne?
Melbourne has a relatively new HealthTech Meetup group run by Dr Pieter Peach that brings together Melbourne’s growing community of health technology entrepreneurs.
Melbourne Hack Nights for Humanity run by ThoughtWorks is a great opportunity for developers to donate their time and work on projects such OpenMRS (a healthcare record system for the developing world).
What’s next for StethoCloud and you?
We’re using the money that we’ve received from Microsoft’s Imagine Cup Grants program to run several research trials at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital to validate our ideas and to bootstrap our dataset. In the meantime, we’ll also be pursuing FDA approval of our system for sale in the US and EC certification for sale in Europe and Australia. We’re also looking to partner with several other research institutes to use StethoCloud as their research platform.
Personally, I’m going to be spending 2013 working as an intern medical doctor by day while hopefully being able to run StethoCloud by night. Things will hopefully start to get interesting and it’s my hope that we will be able to begin the commercialization process in 2014.