AI-powered ultrasound: BioticsAI is tackling misdiagnosis of unborn babies

October 10, 2023
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As co-founder Robhy Bustami puts it, BioticsAI sits at “the intersection where humanity and technology meet”. 

Specifically, it integrates artificial intelligence with ultrasound imaging tech, to help detect and diagnose foetal abnormalities in unborn babies.

The US startup is already making its presence known all over the world, including rolling out in Australian hospitals. 

It also took home the top prize at TechCrunch Disrupt’s prestigious, and incredibly competitive, Startup Battlefield competition for 2023 – so things are only looking up.

This particular AI is tasked with an important, emotionally fraught job. But it’s also filling a bigger gap in the market than you might realise.

Robhy cites research suggesting that up to 50% of patients diagnosed with a foetal abnormality are actually diagnosed incorrectly. 

An AI-powered safety net

Usually, foetal diagnoses (and misdiagnoses) are made in second trimester screenings, usually around 20 weeks.

This is a standard scan; almost a rite of passage. It’s the scan that makes movie scenes, where parents can count bub’s tiny fingers and toes, and choose to find out the sex.

But it's also one of the most technical ultrasound scans to conduct, requiring experience and specialist training.

One of the key challenges, Robhy says, is a global skills shortage in obstetrics and sonography. It means many of those conducting 20-week scans don’t have what he calls “a certifiable amount of experience”.

“They also don’t really get held accountable on a continuous feedback loop. So you're getting really low quality screenings.”

Across the US, Robhy suggests that about a third of all ultrasounds don’t meet standards for quality and ‘completeness’. 

“So they’re certainly not diagnostically viable.”

When talking about something so important, personal and pivotal for families, that’s not what you want to hear.

Ultimately, the skills shortfall can lead to unnecessary anxiety and stress for parents. In the worst cases, it could mean heartache and trauma.

BioticsAI strives to remove the variable of operator dependency, adding a kind of safety net, to ensure every patient gets the same quality of care.

“We’re co-pilots,” Robhy says.

“We’re facilitating the process every step of the way.”

Tech, obstetrics and the commercial medical machine

With a background in data engineering, machine learning and AI product development, Robhy has the tech side of things covered. But he’s also uniquely placed to apply AI to this very specific use case.

Growing up, he was a self-described tech nerd, teaching himself to code by the time he was nine.

“But I was also raised by a family of OBGYNs,” he says.

“I was constantly exposed to the problems experienced within maternal care.”

His awareness became all the more acute when his cousin experienced a misdiagnosis during her pregnancy. 

It was then that the penny dropped. Robhy realised computer vision and AI could help prevent situations like hers.

Co-founder Salman is arguably the other side of the same coin. The pair met 13 years ago at college, and clicked straight away.

“Our relationship is founded on a really long friendship,” Robhy says.

“He’s a brilliant human being.”

But there was a professional synergy here, too. Salman’s experience is in business development and sales – specifically selling software and tech products into health settings.

“At the end of the day, your number one concern should be the patient,” Robhy says.

“But for a business to be successful in the healthcare space, the reality is you need to know the inner workings of how hospitals and health systems are administered; how they make their decisions around technology; what the sales cycles look like.

“That’s where Salman really brought his expertise.”

American medtech Down Under

The pair launched BioticsAI in San Francisco in 2021, and their combined focus on patient wellbeing and business success has in many ways defined their business model and growth plans.

When a business is dealing with potentially life-changing diagnoses, it’s important to keep patient wellbeing front and centre.

“There’s a responsibility,” Robhy says.

“You have to make sure you’re benefiting the patient, and there aren’t any negative implications you might not have thought of … that’s the focus and driver of all your decisions.”

But there are other stakeholders here, too: the doctors and sonographers, and (perhaps most pertinently) hospital executives, and the folks holding the purse strings.

So far, doctors have been incredibly receptive, championing BioticsAI and innovation in obstetrics in general.

The reception from executives has also been positive, but they look at it as an investment, Robhy says. They need to see the potential for return.

“If the doctors are advocating for you and explaining where they need the solutions, the ROI discussion becomes much easier.

“You can make it clear where we’re saving physicians time.”

In Australia, this US startup has found a receptive and forward-thinking medical community, and the perfect launchpad for what is a global opportunity.

Cities like Sydney and Melbourne have networks of hospitals and other institutions, working in a more centralised ecosystem than you would find in the US, Robhy explains. 

There are grants and other opportunities for medtech startups; and Australian hospitals have shorter sales cycles for this kind of tech.

“There’s a very, very strong underlying infrastructure for supporting early-stage medtech,” Robhy says.

The go-to AI for reproductive health

Ultimately, Robhy and Salman’s vision is to become “the AI diagnostics platform for reproductive health”.

They’re starting with obstetrics, but the founders also have their eyes on gynaecology, urology, care for premature and newborn babies, and postnatal maternal care.

“We really see that as a logical trajectory. All of these areas need innovation.”

In the shorter term, though, Robhy hopes BioticsAI can help raise awareness of the inconsistencies in ultrasound diagnoses, ultimately empowering pregnant people all over the world.

“I want every patient to go into their hospital and ask if they’re using BioticsAI to validate the completeness of their screenings,” he says.

“I want people to be educated about the problem.”

The goal on a human level, is for every pregnant patient having their 20-week ultrasound scan to know that they’re getting “a diagnostically viable screening”, Robhy says.

People receiving life-changing information have the right to know it’s as accurate as possible.

“Our technology can facilitate that.”

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Written by
Written by
Stephanie Palmer-DerrienStephanie Palmer-Derrien
Stephanie Palmer-Derrien is a writer, journalist, editor and storyteller specialising in startups, tech and small business. She is passionate about telling untold stories and amplifying marginalised voices in the Australian business landscape. Stephanie was previously startups and technology editor at SmartCompany, and deputy editor at Black Knight Media in London, working on financial services trade publications. She has also dabbled in travel and lifestyle journalism. When she’s not writing, Stephanie can often be found in bookshops, wine bars and cosy cafes, or walking in the park with her family and her goofy dog.

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