Zebra Medical Vision, an Israeli startup that uses machine learning to teach computers to read and diagnose imaging data, raised $12 million in its latest funding round, including a re-investment from Salesforce.com Inc. co-founder Marc Benioff.
Over the past three years, Zebra has been building a database of millions of files such as CT-scans and MRIs of real patients, offering enough data so that machines can learn to accurately detect illnesses including breast cancer, and health problems with bones, the liver and lungs, said president and co-founder Eyal Gura. Company developers are writing specific algorithms for each health issue, and three have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, he said.
The company says its product can help the medical industry deal with a growing shortage of radiologists amid more chronic diseases, an aging population and an expanding middle class seeking more advanced healthcare. According to the World Bank, the middle class in low and middle income countries will jump from 5 percent in 2005 to 25 percent in 2030. China alone will add 1 billion people to these ranks.
Zebra isn’t without competition. IBM in February agreed to buy Truven Health Analytics for $2.6 billion, its fourth acquisition in less than a year aimed at expanding its health-related data business.
Startups will act like “field testers of what works or doesn’t, what is appealing or not, what can be monetized or not,” said Nadim Michel Daher, industry principal, medical imaging and imaging informatics, at Frost & Sullivan. “Larger vendors can’t afford to constantly re-adjust their strategy and are therefore watching their small counterparts very closely.”
Such global pressure is pushing the diagnostic imaging industry to a growth rate of 6 percent annually, and it will reach $33.4 billion by 2020, according to MarketsandMarkets. The market for deep learning imaging, such as what Zebra offers, is much smaller, although growth rates are in the high single-digits, according to Daher.
Salesforce.com’s Benioff has a history of involvement with healthcare and has donated $200 million since 2010 to build and strengthen a children’s hospital in California. The chief executive officer, who also participated in the company’s first financing round of $8 million, “is actively helping us,” Gura said. “He is passionate about healthcare and artificial intelligence.” Zebra’s most recent investment was led by Intermountain Healthcare.
Defining the technology as “the most disruptive radiology has seen since the advent of digital imaging,” Frost & Sullivan’s Daher said that only when it proves it can make radiologists more productive, diagnoses more accurate, decisions more sound and costs more manageable, will the industry revolution take place.
“There is a sense of urgency around creating distinct algorithms as soon as we can,” said Gura. The money raised will be used to expand the research team to do just that, he said. And to augment the in-house team, Zebra created an open platform with a business model similar to Apple Inc.’s App store to enable academics and researchers to create their own algorithms.
The biggest challenge ahead will be regulatory, as global watchdogs “do not take the topic of replacing humans with machines lightly,” Daher said. The problem could be surmounted, he added, if vendors take a “start small, think big” approach, he said.
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