Tag: O’Connor Fund


Proscia is Teaching Computers to Beat Cancer

Proscia is Teaching Computers to Beat Cancer


David West

For 150 years, pathologists have used glass slides and microscopes to analyze tissue samples, understand cancer and determine the best course of treatments. One Baltimore startup, however, is ushering this process and the whole field of pathology into an era of computational pathology.

Founded in 2014 by Johns Hopkins undergraduates from the Whiting School of Engineering, Proscia began developing data management applications that enable researchers and pathologists to upload, extract and manipulate data, and telepathology solutions that allow a large number of people to analyze the same slide at the same time from different locations around the world.

“Pathologists analyze billions of slides each year, and almost every single one of those is analyzed under a microscope,” says Proscia CEO David West. “In the next couple of years, a huge chunk of those images will be digitized before they’re looked at by a pathologist. This represents one of the biggest trends in big data in medicine ever.”

When West says big data, he isn’t exaggerating. Despite the tissue samples fitting onto a 1-inch-by-3-inch slide, their digital high-resolution images are about a gigabyte each. The large files allow researchers and pathologists to enlarge the images to 20 to 40 times their original size and clearly examine components of individual cells.

“It’s such an ungodly amount of information, and in every one of those images is a little piece of the puzzle of cancer,” West says. “What we want to do is start unlocking that.”

Proscia Image Analysis

A few months ago, Johns Hopkins signed on as a Proscia client, enabling the institution’s pathologists and other researchers to access and tap into pathology data from across the institution. Proscia’s technology also powers Johns Hopkins’ Surgical Pathology Unknowns database. Each week pathology residents receive six to eight unknown surgical pathology cases. These cases typically comprise both classical and unusual lesions seen in surgical pathology the previous week, providing a tremendous learning opportunity.

Though Proscia initially focused product development on the research market, it has increasingly invested in developing image analysis solutions that would benefit pathologists in a clinical setting. The technologies in this sector use computer vision and machine learning to enable pathologists to make more informed and more accurate decisions about the severity of a patient’s cancer and the best course of treatment.

Though Proscia has invested in this area for about a year, the market for these technologies became more attractive in April when, for the first time, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first Whole Slide Imaging system for primary diagnostic clinical use in pathology. According to the FDA, this system facilitates the “review and interpretation of digital surgical pathology slides from biopsied tissue.”

“The FDA approval lays the groundwork for the transition from pathology to digital pathology to computational pathology,” says West, who graduated from The Johns Hopkins University in 2016 with a degree in biomedical engineering and a focus on computational biology. “It makes it a good time to be in this space.”

The promise of computational pathology

User View of Proscia

Science has little room for subjectivity, but unfortunately it still exists. West says two well-educated, experienced and successful pathologists analyzing the same tissue sample could come to two vastly different conclusions. One pathologist may determine that a tumor is likely to metastasize (spread) and want to act aggressively, while the other may not see as grave of a threat. Though pathologists do a terrific job with the information they have, West says machine learning will help them be even better.

“If a human can do a task with enough training, that means a machine can do it with enough training and perhaps more efficiently than a person,” West says. “We basically are training algorithms to look for patterns the same way a human pathologist looks for patterns.”

Proscia’s algorithms provide a quantitative view of cancer. For example, the algorithm could determine that a tumor is 51.5 percent likely to metastasize. Not only does this arm a pathologist with more data when determining treatment, it provides a standardized diagnostic procedure that reduces errors and improves patient outcomes. It also could create significant financial savings for health care providers.

Despite the promise of this technology, West says that image analysis solutions will never wholly replace a pathologist. Instead, he sees the technology as a tool that will automate certain tasks and augment a pathologist’s expertise.

“Studies have shown that combining an algorithm with human knowledge produces the best results,” West says. “You get nearly 100 percent accuracy when you do that.”

Finding success in Baltimore

Proscia has received a lot of recognition for and investments in its work. A little over a year after announcing in February 2016 that it had raised $1 million, Proscia announced another raise for $925,000.Then in June, the Maryland Technology Development Corporation (TEDCO) awarded Proscia the Incubator Company of the Year award for Best Unaffiliated Company.

These successes followed Proscia leveraging multiple resources at Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures (JHTV). West, who entered Johns Hopkins hoping to build his own company, recalled how the support the university provided student startups became much more robust as he worked his way from underclassman to upperclassman and how that support contributed to Proscia’s growth.

“We went through the Ralph S. O’Connor Undergraduate Entrepreneurship Fund, and that was a great experience for us,” West says of the program that supports teams of undergraduate entrepreneurs with up to $10,000 in funding and mentorship. “JHTV is a community. It’s awesome to be a part of it.”

After graduating, West decided to stay in Baltimore because of the resources available to help him build his company. Proscia has operated out of the Spark co-working space near the Inner Harbor for the past year, but West has continued to work closely with JHTV in that time.

“I can say confidently that the support for entrepreneurs and technologists coming out of Hopkins is there,” West says. “In addition to the O’Connor Fund, we made some connections to some funds that were here. I look forward to engaging JHTV more in the future.”


Interested in learning about other Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures startups? Click here!


Student Ventures

MoTrack Therapy Wins 2017 Summer Award for Undergraduate Entrepreneurs

MoTrack Therapy Wins 2017 Summer Award for Undergraduate Entrepreneurs

Three major issues limit the effectiveness of at-home hand therapy: adherence to a tedious rehab regimen, incorrectly performing exercises and a lack of quantitative data for therapists to evaluate.

Though MoTrack Therapy is developing a solution that modernizes the long stagnant physical therapy industry through machine learning, gamification and computer vision, the close of the 2017 spring semester threatened to send the five Johns Hopkins University biomedical engineering majors who co-founded the company hundreds of miles apart.

MoTrack Therapy aspires to bring at-home rehabilitation into the 21st century.

Fortunately, MoTrack received the Summer Undergraduate Entrepreneurship Award. The award, first offered in 2016 through the generosity of anonymous donors, supports one undergraduate startup each year with $10,000 along with space and mentorship from experienced entrepreneurs and business leaders in order to work on their startup over the summer.

“We were unsure about the best way to continue our patient testing and to maintain a lean and cohesive team,” says Rahul Yerrabelli, the company’s CTO and a rising junior studying biomedical engineering. “The Summer Award allows our team to work full-time on MoTrack Therapy over the summer so that we can continue our clinical testing, and pursue our business product development efforts.”

MoTrack aspires to develop a computer program that modernizes the physical therapy space and will ultimately increase patient adherence to rehab programs, expedite patient recovery with live corrective feedback and quantifiably show therapists their patients’ progress. The technology the team is developing currently focuses solely on rehabilitation from hand injuries, including wrist fractures and carpel tunnel, but it has the potential to be used for other parts of the body as well.

“Physical therapy is a field that has seen many new devices over the years but that has been untouched by the newest advances in computer science like computer vision and machine learning,” Yerrabelli says. “These advances will dominate the future in almost every field of health imaginable, and we want MoTrack Therapy to be at the forefront of their revolution on physical therapy.”

One of MoTrack’s goals for this summer is to move its clinical testing beyond Johns Hopkins and into other health care providers around the country. Additionally, they will look to their mentors for guidance on how to solidify their business model and how to identify new ways to provide value to employers, insurance companies and other intermediaries associated with patient care.

“With the money we received from the Summer Award, we can finally fund our growth to these other clinics, helping us with the logistical, transportation and time costs,” Yerrabelli says.

Interest in the Summer Award nearly tripled as JHTV received 35 applications in 2017 compared to 13 last year. From those nearly three dozen student ventures, three members of JHTV’s FastForward team ranked 10 finalists based on their in-person pitches. The anonymous donors chose the winner based on how much value they felt the startup would receive from the award.

“There was an extremely strong pool of applicants and selecting the winner was not easy,” says Kasim Ahmad, JHTV’s venture coordinator for student projects. “What set MoTrack apart was their level of commitment, the diversity of skill sets on their team and their plan for executing pilots.”

Last year, Fusiform, a startup led by Param Shah and Alex Matthews that set out to revolutionize the orthotics industry, won the inaugural Summer Award. Shah and Matthews used the funding and mentorship to develop more designs of its revolutionary orthotic, move its enterprise software into two clinics and eventually pivot their business to make it commercially viable in markets outside of orthotics. In January, Forbes named the pair to its 30 Under 30 list.

“Receiving the mentorship of world-class entrepreneurs and advisors at an early stage brought significant confidence to us as founders and to our team,” Shah says. “Additionally, funding from the Summer Award gave us the ability to tangibly grow our company.”

2015-2016 Ralph S. O’Connor cohort. MoTrack Therapy is in the front row.

The team at MoTrack sees the Summer Award as only one of the latest ways that Johns Hopkins is supporting student entrepreneurship. Yerrabelli pointed specifically to a new space on the Homewood campus designated specifically for student entrepreneurs and the Ralph S. O’Connor Undergraduate Entrepreneurship Fund, which helped MoTrack grow this past year.

“Johns Hopkins has a lot of talent—especially in the life sciences and health arena—and programs like the Summer Award help fill the gap between excellent research in the lab and products that actually make it to market,” Yerrabelli says. “It gives undergraduates the opportunity to think big and stay committed to their own ideas full-time over the summer.”


Want to learn more about how JHTV supports student ventures? Click here!


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