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Biomedical Zone graduate uses AI to meet challenges like COVID-19

Pentavere makes it easier for doctors to capture up-to-the-minute information emerging from patient records
September 25, 2020
From left: Aaron Leibtag and Linda Maxwell

From left: Aaron Leibtag of Pentavere and Linda Maxwell of the Biomedical Zone. Leibtag says the Biomedical Zone helped launch his business that will draw upon real-time information emerging from thousands of patient records that capture up-to-the-minute care techniques and outcomes. Photo by Alyssa K. Faoro.

The COVID-19 pandemic represents a moment in history when politicians, scientists and health authorities have been called upon to help Canadians protect their health. Unfortunately, in such unprecedented times, they often must perform these critical tasks without the benefit of definitive answers. 

And although technology innovation has long been known as a remedy for many health-care challenges, the need is keenly felt now as the world races to fend off a deadly and mysterious pandemic. 

The Pentavere, external link team, one of the first startups incubated at Ryerson University’s Biomedical Zone (BMZ), identified a paramount issue that their technology could help solve: health-care professionals make treatment decisions based on decades of training, published studies and their own experience - and policy-makers take rapid public health measures. And they’ve historically done so without the ability to draw upon real-time information emerging from thousands of patient records that capture up-to-the-minute care techniques and outcomes. 

Tackling big challenges

To address this issue, Pentavere, named one of the most powerful AI companies to watch in 2020, external link by Healthcare Insights, created their proprietary technology engine called DARWEN, that helps health-care organizations and researchers unlock powerful insights buried in their medical records to improve patient outcomes. In short, they find the needles in the haystack that save lives. An example is Pentavere’s ability to analyze the records of thousands of patients with lung cancer in order to find the few patients with certain characteristics that will benefit from new personalized treatments that are now available to patients. Before Pentavere this process would be manual, time consuming and costly.   

Pentavere’s co-founder Steven Aviv was inspired by the unnecessary death of his mother during a routine hospital procedure, since her need for blood thinners was obscured within a clinical note. Teaming up with his friend Aaron Leibtag, they developed a technology solution that uses AI to uncover medical insights from vast amounts of clinical information, at a speed and accuracy few thought possible.

Despite their ground-breaking discovery, it wasn’t until the entrepreneurs connected with BMZ founder Dr. Linda Maxwell that their company started to gain traction. “Dr. Maxwell at the BMZ saw the potential in us and she patiently taught us to navigate the complicated health-care system to gain clinical validation for our technology,” says Leibtag. “Without her assistance, we would not be performing this important work that can measurably improve patient outcomes.” 

Nurturing inclusion to strengthen invention

The Pentavere founders both say they benefited from the fresh-thinking and distinct perspectives they received through BMZ’s incubator environment, and they’ve since graduated from the incubation space. Leibtag said that Dr. Maxwell’s mentoring includes encouraging entrepreneurs to incorporate diversity and inclusion by design to ensure their company is truly poised to drive innovation. 

“To innovate, you must think differently and be really different from the norm. A health-care technology company requires true diversity of talent and skills, and that means a relentless commitment to inclusion from day one,” she says. 

The team took her advice to heart, and they’ve hired employees who reflect different experiences. The team’s linguist may have no medical background, but Leibtag says she’s making important contributions: “She has spent years analyzing the linguistic structure of the testimonials of women who survived genocide. That unique experience and skill has proven to be invaluable towards the work we are doing across Ontario to understand the impact COVID-19 is having on patients who suffer from major depression and suicidal ideation.”

Pentavere founders say they started their company to address one major question: Why is it we have all the data we need for financial markets to make money but don’t have the information we need to save lives? COVID-19 has made this question all the more pertinent, and Pentavere hopes to aggregate good quality data on its impact on different people with different histories, symptoms, pre-existing conditions and comorbidities.

“The need for good data has never been more important and clearer in light of what we are all going through with COVID-19. I believe we will see even more innovation and partnerships between industry, government and institutions to bridge our data gaps, because good data saves lives.”  

Dr. Maxwell says the collaboration between Pentavere and the Biomedical Zone highlights how a high-performing team was able to build a strong business case for applied AI within the healthcare system. The story illustrates the massive platform that Ryerson potentially has developed to lead on health innovation. “The Zone truly offers the collegial and collaborative ecosystem necessary to help CEOs and founders execute successfully on their innovation. The Biomedical Zone provides start ups with immersion in the clinical realm and buttresses that experience with rich intellectual and social capital of expert advisors and clinicians to accelerate validation of business hypotheses and advancement of technology adoption. We’re the only hospital-embedded incubator in the country and it’s a unique platform that Ryerson’s Biomedical Zone has steadfastly built over the last five years and one we continually update and improve towards excellence.” 

This fall, the Biomedical Zone launched a first-in-class, fully digital innovation curriculum, for startups and innovators who would like to participate but aren’t able to relocate to Toronto. “This curriculum will provide access and impact to start ups in a geographically agnostic and highly equitable manner, allowing us to be even more inclusive of innovators far beyond the GTA.”

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