Alexis is director of content at AIMed, with responsibility for the research, development and delivery of products across events, digital and publishing. A highly experienced events executive with a career focus on the intersection between healthcare and technology, he is also a school governor leading on teaching, learning, and quality of education.
You have enjoyed a varied career working for both large enterprise and small startups across IT, automotive, education, fintech and real estate amongst others. What led you to focus on digital diagnostics?
We started up a fintech company in Luxembourg in 2014, but my oldest kids wanted to come home after a year to graduate in the United States. After coming back, I ran into a good friend that was the previous CTO for Ancestry.com. He was considering partnering with Ralph Yarro on an incubator and suggested we meet. One of Ralph’s companies was Techcyte and I knew immediately I wanted to contribute. I invested, brought on other engineering resources and we started on the journey!
There is a seemingly ever-increasing number of companies operating in ML for medical image analysis. In a busy marketplace, your focus on cytology rather than histology sets you apart. What inspired you to take this direction?
We credit Dr Mohamed Salama with the decision to focus on liquids and cellular sample types. He correctly predicted that the digital pathology market would be very crowded for tissue-based AI algorithms and workflows. We view the tissue-based AI companies as fellow travelers. Hospital systems and labs will need digital solutions for both anatomical (tissue) and clinical (liquids/cells) pathology. The AI, data curation and workflow technology is fundamentally different even though we’ve had to develop similar looking platforms.
The other decision that set us apart was the decision to commit a significant amount of resources to the veterinary market. Today, Zoetis has an exclusive license for our platform in the animal health market and we’ve jointly delivered fecal, blood and cytology solutions for veterinary clinics worldwide. This investment has allowed us to grow profitably the last three years, which is significantly different from most AI companies.
What outcomes are the labs you are working with seeing so far – both in terms of efficiency and effectiveness, as well as patient care?
In the human digital diagnostics market our solutions increase efficiency and accuracy. Patient care is always first in healthcare and so combining the sensitivity of an AI solution with the specificity of a human medical technician provides more consistent and accurate results. The biggest issue facing labs today is hiring and retaining qualified medical technicians that can do microscopy-based jobs. Techcyte allows labs to take tests from 5 minutes down to 15-30 seconds. That efficiency gain allows labs to keep up with the increasing volumes that they face.
In what areas do you see the next big advances in medical AI?
We have decades worth of work to automate existing microscopy-based tests. As both scanning and AI-technology improves we will get to the point where AI will be able to eliminate the negative results. This will mean that humans won’t have to look at the negative cases and will be able to focus their time on the positives. Eventually, AI will get to the point where it will be more accurate and consistent than a human, but that is a ways off.
What pearls of wisdom would you offer to someone starting their career in this field?
I had the incredible experience of working for Intel early in my career. At Intel we went through the transition of waterfall-based software development to agile development and we learned the process of making good software.
I’d recommend that anyone starting out in the software field really learn the craft of software development. I believe the magic of software happens when your software engineers deeply understand the customer’s problem. Product management is the voice of the customer, but the closer you can get your developers to the customer the better your solutions will become.
Build great software over time and deliver simple solutions that can improve over time. Getting something in the market where it can get real feedback from real customers is invaluable. I’d rather get customers using something and improve it than trying to create the perfect solution right out of the gate.
Who’s been the biggest influence on your own career?
Without a doubt, it was Dana Doggett. Dana was one of the first engineers at Novell and started the company that Intel eventually bought that became LANDesk. Throughout my time at Intel LANDesk and then later at LanSchool I was able to learn some valuable lessons.
First – it is OK if your software has bugs, if you fix them quickly. We had a policy at LanSchool that if we couldn’t fix a customer’s bug over the phone, we’d fly an engineer onsite. That product only sold for $599, so it forced us to create quality software and fix issues quickly. If you can fix a bug for a customer, they are a customer for life.
Second – Humans have a hard time understanding the size of markets. There is almost always room for lots of competitors. So don’t worry so much about your competition and focus on making your customers ecstatic!
Third – There are only two types of people in the world, those who are abundant and those that are scarce. Life is too short to work with people that have a scarcity mentality. I’ve tried to be and surround myself with abundant people who are always focused on making the pie larger.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Switching to computer science from accounting! Software companies are magical. I’ve run companies that have sold physical products and it is just much harder. The manufacturing, inventory and forecasting implications are super critical and just more difficult with physical products. With software you just need to make sure you’re building something that creates real value. The worst mistake is to spend a bunch of money developing an elegant solution that doesn’t solve a real world problem that someone will pay for.
There is nothing better in this world than to type on a keyboard and use your creativity to create something out of thin air. I love everything about building great software companies and solutions.
I still get up every morning and can’t believe that I get to work on software that is making a significant positive impact for pets, humans and the environment, and doing it with a team of people that care so much about doing the right thing. Life is good!
Ben Cahoon is a serial entrepreneur that earned an undergraduate degree in Computer Science and an MBA from Brigham Young University. For the past six years he’s helped launch Techcyte, working on everything from product to projections, marketing, partnerships and funding. Ben has worked in large ventures such as Intel, Lenovo and start-ups in digital microscopy, IT, automotive performance, education, real estate and the fund industry. He’s had two successful exits with the last one being sold to Lenovo. Ben is passionate about creating and executing on an aligned corporate strategy and making amazing software solutions that will make a significant impact to the accuracy and costs of diagnostic testing.