May 9, 2023

Northwell, Aegis form AI startup

 Northwell Holdings and Aegis Ventures are starting a company that uses retinal imaging and artificial intelligence to detect and diagnose diseases.


The investment arm for Northwell Health and venture firm Aegis are launching Optain with $12 million in funding through Ascertain, the joint venture AI platform company they created with $100 million in seed funding in April 2022 to form companies and commercialize healthcare AI solutions. Optain is the first company to come out of this collaboration.


Northwell and Aegis are forming Optain with technology developed by Australian company Eyetelligence. Optain’s AI technology analyzes images from a small retinal camera to screen for and diagnose multiple chronic and acute conditions. Northwell Health will be Optain’s first commercial customer in America once the company receives regulatory approval from the Food and Drug Administration. 


Dr. Richard Braunstein, senior vice president and executive director of ophthalmology at Northwell Health, said he envisions using the technology to screen for cardiovascular, neurological and chronic diseases. Initially, the goal will be to use it in ophthalmology but given Northwell’s size, which includes more than 21 hospitals and 890 outpatient facilities, there is a lot of room to experiment with finding ways to use the technology, he said.


“As ophthalmologists, we're privileged to see into the body and identify disease processes earlier [than other clinicians],” Braunstein said. “We already know, from AI research, that the computer can see things that we are not able to see and can see beyond our capacity. Thinking of how that [affects] patient care in the future is the next story in AI. It’s exciting to be a part of it.” 


Optain will work with Northwell on research and development while the regulatory approval and commercial rollout processes are underway, said Optain CEO Jeff Dunkel. While Eyetelligence has received regulatory approval in Australia and Asia, he said the U.S. market offers the most potential for growth.


“It’s the Frank Sinatra [of health innovation], if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. So it makes sense to bring new and novel technology from the world's best and brightest scientists to the U.S. and make sure that we make carve out our station,” Dunkel said. 


As the hype around AI in healthcare builds, a handful of companies using technology to diagnose diseases through retinal images have seen interest from investors. In October, Woodland Hills, California-based Eyenuk received $26 million a Series A funding round, which CEO Kaushal Solanki said will be used to commercialize the AI system and roll it out in more states. Another company that has developed an AI-enabled diabetic retinopathy solution, Digital Diagnostics, announced a $75 million Series B funding round in August.

Reprinted with permission from Modern Healthcare. © 2023 Crain Communications Inc. All rights reserved.
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