How Machine Learning will Transform Care for Millions of Premature Babies in China

Date Updated: Thursday, October 4, 2018

The following post was written by Povl Verder, Founder & CEO of SIME Diagnostics

At SIME Diagnostics we are developing a digital platform that can measure multiple biomarkers, from a single fluid sample, at the point of care. Our platform is reagent-free and combines a device, machine learning algorithms, and cloud computing, to deliver test results with speed and precision. The technology is supported by medical trials, a strong IP portfolio, and an experienced team. The platform can be used in a wide range of medical areas, but we are starting with an acute unmet need: providing improved care for millions of premature babies through a rapid lung maturity test.

This year more than 15 million babies will be born too soon, and 1 million will die from complications caused by premature birth. The single most common cause of disease and death in these very fragile patients is lung immaturity.

Doctor helping new born

When a baby is born premature, every second counts. In the critical hours after birth, one of our biggest concerns is Respiratory Distress Syndrome (a disease caused by immature lungs). Although we are racing against the clock, in some cases we have to wait hours before we can see symptoms and confirm a diagnosis. That means treatment is often delayed and given too late. Early diagnosis would allow us to treat earlier and preventatively, giving us the edge we need to really make a difference.”

– Professor Henrik Verder, Pediatrician

Globally, it might be surprising to note that maternal and pediatric healthcare is under-prioritized and under-funded. It’s a highly complex area and from an investor perspective it is made up of multiple small markets, since children of different ages require different care. On a global level, large funds like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative are working hard to pick up the slack, however, this is still a challenging environment for a healthcare startup.

On a national level, China is going against the global trend with heavy investment in pediatrics. Over the past 18 years, China, fully committed to the Millennium Development Goals set by the United Nations in 2000, has made notable progress in reducing the mortality rate of children under 5. China now has the second largest In Vitro Diagnostics market in the world and the medical devices market is growing at more than 20% per annum.

The country also boasts the second highest number of births in the world, with 1.3 million premature babies born every year. Up to 20% of premature babies born in China will be born with immature lungs, resulting in 50-70% of all premature deaths and 30% of all newborn deaths. The increase in birth rate, and a very high number of caesarean sections, is driving this large and growing market. With huge unmet needs, significant gaps in healthcare, a large patient population and a thirst for innovation, China is an ideal environment for emerging medical technologies.

Without a high level of standardized care across hospitals, it is almost impossible to improve care across a country - particularly in a country as large as China. The first step of standardizing treatment is accurate and fast diagnosis. We are working closely with Chinese doctors to develop a test that will set a new standard of care for newborn lung disease, and can be implemented in all Chinese hospitals. Our test uses machine learning to identify which babies have immature lungs within the first hour after birth, ensuring that the right babies, get the right treatment, at the right time, for a lower cost.

Though the Chinese market is focused on pediatric investments and is rapidly expanding, it comes with its own challenges. On the digital side of things, China is often known for its “great firewall” and although China has embraced the Cloud, the Chinese Cloud is a different animal entirely. Microsoft has been an enabler and springboard to Mooncake (the Chinese version of Azure), the Chinese market in general, and has even introduced us to potential partners. Thanks to the support of Microsoft, we are able to focus our business on what really matters – machine learning that sets a new standard of care and will save the lives of premature babies.

 

Entering the Chinese market can be challenging. Our top tips are:

1. Make sure your IP protection is foolproof. China has been getting a lot of negative press for IP protection, but the situation is improving. Patents are of course important, but the use of trade secrets is another key strategy.

2. Form strategic partnerships. Relationships and connections are crucial to success in China, particularly in complex fields such as medical innovation. Partners can help you navigate the legal and regulatory system, in addition to helping you to understand differences in business culture. However, take your time in choosing who, when, and how you form partnerships. For example, joint ventures are popular in China, but this may not be the best option for your business. We’ve been lucky because Microsoft has made us feel “part of their Chinese family”, which has given us a soft landing and an anchor point in the market, as well as helping to translate unspoken nuances. In addition, our Founder, Professor Henrik Verder, is a global key opinion leader with deep knowledge of the Chinese market. He has spent the last 25 years traveling extensively in China and training doctors in the gold standard of care for premature babies.

3. Embrace a different way of working. Setting up a business in a foreign country is not without its challenges. There are many opportunities for miscommunication or misunderstandings, so form a strong support network of advisors and recruit local talent. The Chinese are generally very skilled, highly motivated and especially focused; they have a great business culture of getting things moving quickly and they enthusiastically adopt new technology. Embracing this culture can be hugely beneficial for any company.

 

Get to know Povl Verder, Founder & CEO of SIME Diagnostics

Hobbies. I’m a big fan of science fiction; it’s a tool that allows us to explore how our future will unfold and evolve.

Favorite restaurant. La Trompette.

Most productive work spot. Tamp Coffee in Chiswick.

 

Get to know Omer Casher, Chief Technical Officer of SIME Diagnostics

Hobbies. I like to keep active, so when I get the chance I enjoy skiing and practicing yoga.

Favorite restaurant. Limon.

Most productive work spot. Crew Collective and Café in Montreal.

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