Seven per cent of all searches on Google are about health, mounting to a staggering 70,000 medical-related queries a minute, Google says.
We are all, to some degree, curious or anxious about our bodies. Medicus AI, a health technology company started in Dubai in 2015, is looking to capitalise on that natural inclination. Its app translates medical reports and health data into easy-to-understand, personalised explanations and recommendations for users.
Apps for improving overall well-being - like tracking if you’re getting enough sleep, eating well and moving - are one of the world’s hottest digital trends. Studies show this may be a good thing: about 80 per cent of health outcomes are caused by things that happen outside of the medical system, like eating and exercise habits, socioeconomic status and where we live. All of these factors have a bigger impact on health outcomes than the care received in a clinical setting, according to Deloitte.
Medicus AI is taking it a step further by combining the everyday activity of a user with interpretations of their latest medical test results, including vital signs, family history, current medications, and the most commonly-tested blood, urine and stool markers, which are submitted by the company’s lab and hospital clients. Patients are then able to see their results in plain, conversational language in Medicus AI's app. The platform also delivers custom health tips and recommended steps to make more healthy choices, like a daily step goal or a followup appointment with a physician.
"Just as the average time medical practitioners are spending with patients is declining, our curiosity is increasing," Dr Baher Al Hakim, the chief executive and co-founder of Medicus AI told The National. "Our concrete idea was to work with blood tests, but the bigger, more abstract concept was to completely redesign health care."
Diagnostic labs produce billions of reports annually, but the industry has struggled to introduce user-friendly technology products to inform its customers. Medicus AI, which has 47 medical and research scientist staff, combines human-verified data analysis with artificial intelligence (AI) to produce the reports.
Dr Al Hakim, who grew up in Syria and moved to Dubai in 2005 after graduating from dentistry school in Damascus, has been a serial entrepreneur for the last 15 years. But he said Medicus AI is showing the most promise.
“In the past I was naive enough to believe the ideas in my head were good enough,” he said. After a decade of stymied attempts at launching a digital agency, a FinTech company and a rapid R&D firm, in 2015 he had a chance conversation with his best friend about his latest idea to turn blood test results into the basis for a health technology app.
That conversation led to Dr Al Hakim's meeting with his friend's sister Dr Nadine Nehme who was looking to move to Dubai. Dr Nehme, who holds a PhD in molecular and cellular biology and has done a post-doctoral programme in immunology and genetics, was finding herself antsy as an assistant professor at universities in Beirut. She describes herself as a “scientist at the core” and was eager to expand her reach beyond the classroom.
She describes her 2015 meeting with Dr Al Hakim as effortless, and with her research background and his entrepreneurial instincts, they agreed to go into business together that day. Less than a year later, the first iteration of the app was coded and they partnered with a lab in Dubai to perform 120 blood tests on family, friends and prospective investors.
The initial tests were routine, checking things like white and red blood cell count, glucose and cholesterol levels to see if a patient is vulnerable to infection, being pre-diabetic or has high cholesterol.
The results were analysed by the lab then uploaded to the Medicus AI app, which converted the results into plain English: are you healthy or not?
“Even the completely healthy people really liked to see their results,” Dr Al Hakim recalled.
With valuable user feedback and a proof of concept in hand, they landed $600,000 in seed funding, led by Audalion Ventures in Dubai and Speed Invest, a venture capital fund based in Austria.
And then they made a bold move.
With Dr Nehme still in Dubai, her co-founder moved to Vienna, Austria.
“There was a lack of deep tech and capital in Dubai,” Dr Al Hakim said. In order to grow, Medicus AI was after hospital clients that were the largest in their given market, processing a minimum of 1 million lab results a year. To start out, they decided the team should focus on Europe.
The decision paid off. A year ago, when Medicus AI closed Series A funding of €5 million (Dh20.2m), it reported annual revenue of almost €1m, with its client list including Al Borg Labs in Saudi Arabia and a partnership with Roche Diagnostics in France. Clients pay a base subscription fee, and then pay per report sent to a patient. The app is white labelled for each client.
Today, it has headquarters in Vienna, with offices in Dubai, Paris, Berlin, Beirut and Shenzhen. From a couple of dozen hospital clients in Germany, France and Austria, this year the company “is doubling down on the Middle East”, according to Dr Al Hakim.
Today, of 112 employees about 80 are on the product side: researchers and AI engineers who make the content relevant in Arabic, German, French and English.
Last month Medicus AI achieved a pivotal milestone, receiving a medical device classification for its mobile app in the EU, which means it can be freely sold anywhere in the EU and will be helpful as it expands worldwide.
Just in time, too. At the end of 2019, the company announced it was looking to raise $22m in the first half of 2020, and began an aggressive expansion plan into China’s technology capital, Shenzhen. Their plan to hire 18 people is facing delays, however, amid uncertainty over the spread of the coronavirus and containment measures being implemented in the country.
Dr Nehme said she is most excited about a pilot project with China’s biggest life insurance provider to expand its app to serve pregnant women in Hong Kong.
“I was so overwhelmed in my first pregnancy, even though I understood what the doctor was telling me," she recalled.
“This came from personal need. We all want to make the best of what we have to help ourselves be healthier.”
Q&A with Medicus co-founder and chief science officer Dr Nadine Nehme
What successful start-up do you wish you had started?
Revolut, it’s as essential as your passport when traveling. They have disrupted the traditional banking sector, one of the oldest institutions, using user-centric innovation.
What new skills have you learnt from launching your venture?
Long-term planning, resilience, being able to adapt and respond quickly to all developments.
If you could do it all again, what would you do differently?
Grow more aggressively, hire faster and earlier.
What is something that may surprise patients about medical technology in the next decade?
The transition to personalised medicine. Presently patients are treated with a one-size-fits-all approach. With personalised medicine, treatment will be tailored based on a patient’s unique profile and diagnostic markers and on predicting the therapy response. We are not there, yet, as creating the ability to synthesise personalised medicines relies on collecting and analysing vast amounts of data. The more data we collect, the more accurate, and therefore effective, treatments will be. This will be the next revolution in medicine and the effectiveness of the new medicines will significantly improve the doctor-patient relationship.