Northwell, Aegis Ventures Launch Startup to Diagnose 140+ Diseases Via Retinal Scans

Northwell, Aegis Ventures Launch Startup to Diagnose 140+ Diseases Via Retinal Scans

Last April, Northwell Healththe largest health system in New York, teamed up with startup studio Aegis Ventures to create a healthcare AI company creation platform called Ascertain. Flash forward to May 2023, and Ascertain has launched its first AI company: Optain.

New York-based Optain —which has gained an initial seed investment of $12 million — is an AI company meant to enable earlier disease detection and prevention through retinal imaging.

The company’s AI analyzes photos of the eye that were taken with a retinal camera. These analyses are meant not only to screen for eye disease, but also those located throughout the body. In fact, Optain’s AI can help clinicians screen for more than 140 eye and systemic conditions — some of them cardiovascular and neurological — CEO Jeff Dunkel said in a recent interview.

“The ability to take a fundus image is not unique — there are a lot of camera companies out there that can shoot an image through the eye and look at the back of the eye, blood vessels, lesions, the optical nerve and various other features. But not a lot of companies are very good at looking at that from an artificial intelligence and deep learning scenario to figure out which disease states we can predict or screen for by assessing those features,” he explained.

Optain’s technology is based on technology developed by Mingguang He, an Australian clinician researcher. His inventions led to the formation of Australian startup Eyetelligence in 2019.

Eyetelligence has built a portfolio of AI products that analyze retinal images to screen for diseases — these products have already been commercialized in Australia, Japan and New Zealand, as well as some European and Middle Eastern countries.

Optain uses Eyetelligence’s technology as its foundation, and the startup could be considered somewhat of an extension of the Australian company. Optain probably would have operated under Eyetelligence’s name if it weren’t for the fact that that name was already taken by a different vendor in the U.S. market, Dunkel pointed out.

Eyetelligence’s AI was trained on third party cameras, but Optain is now incorporating its own camera into its product, Dunkel said. The eye can often be a window to a person’s health, but most clinicians lack non-invasive diagnostics and screenings that focus on the eye — adding a camera to Optain’s product could address this problem, he declared.

“In the optometry space, we’re talking about $15,000 cameras. They are very robust in size, and they’re fixed on a table so that the patient has to go up to the camera. Because of the cost and the footprint, they’re not widely available outside of the optometry and ophthalmology market. But we see a real opportunity to identify and screen for disease states beyond those spaces. In the future, we think a low-cost, portable camera is a solution that allows for screening into the primary care market,” he explained.

It’s difficult to say when Optain will clear regulatory hurdles and be able to enter the U.S. market, but Dunkel predicts this could happen in 2025. Should Optain achieve this, Northwell will be the company’s flagship commercial customer.

In addition to the formation of Ascertain, Northwell has also recently partnered with Aegis launched Cairo — a startup creation platform focused on virtual care. The first company born out of Caire launched in November — a virtual menopause care startup named Influence.

Photo: Karen Bleier/AFP via Getty Images

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