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Using AI to innovate the future of cardiology

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13 May 2021

HeartLab, a venture founded by University of Auckland Science alumnus Will Hewitt, is building the world’s first end-to-end solution for echocardiography, a medical test that uses sound waves to produce live images of patients’ hearts.

Echocardiography is a doctor’s ‘go-to’ scan if they know or suspect that a patient has some form of heart disease. The test provides insight into things like how the heart and its valves are functioning and potential blood clots in the chambers. Around 100,000 of the non-invasive, non-radiating, low cost tests are done in New Zealand every year; in the US, the number is approximately 34 million.

Given that tests are carried out so frequently, Will saw an opportunity to use AI to enhance the entire workflow. He explains, “Echocardiography begins with a technician moving a probe around the patient’s chest, essentially taking a video of their heart from different angles that doctors can use to diagnose a range of different heart diseases. The problem kicks in afterwards. You’ve got cardiologists who spent 15 years in training sitting there manually annotating these images. They’re looking at them, taking measurements, hand typing notes, and writing repetitive reports. When you look at this situation from an innovation perspective, you think ‘this is a nice little use case for AI,’ because you’ve got a cut of highly trained, expensive professionals doing a menial task that could easily be automated.”

Will was a first year student working as an undergraduate researcher at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute (ABI) when he met HeartLab co-founder Dr. Patrick Gladding, a specialist in general cardiology and internal medicine. He says, “I was just an engineer who was really interested in working on heart problems, with a bit of background in entrepreneurship. There wasn’t really a defined ‘lightbulb’ moment, but we managed to land on this idea.”

Using AI to automate the process of taking measurements formed the crux of Will’s research at ABI. He then realised that while his algorithm was able to save time by taking a bunch of standard measurements and spitting them back to a clinician, he could take it one step further and make it even more valuable by integrating it into doctors’ entire workflow. “That’s where the end-to-end solution thing comes in,” says Will. “We percolate all the outputs from AI and highlight the best parts of the video. Rather than having doctors manually filter through 30 minutes of video, we highlight the most important milliseconds so they can spend less time sitting at the computer and more time with their patients.”

Will is driven by a love for medicine and the meeting of art and science. He says, “The way the body works is a fascinating, complicated problem. From an engineering perspective, I love building things that help people. At the end of the day, you get to actually build a tool that helps clinicians help patients, so you can see the human impact of what you’re doing in quite a genuine way.”

HeartLab has developed a robust process of iterating and improving on their product that includes running user interviews, getting feedback, and turning that feedback into features. Will says, “I can definitely say that the product we had 12 months ago looks nothing like the product we have today, and I think the product we have today is pretty fantastic compared to what we had 12 months ago. It’s about being massively user centric, and asking ourselves ‘How can we do every single thing possible to make this workflow awesome for cardiologists?’ Product design is really something that I’ve built my personal understanding of over the past six months, so it’s something we’re all still actively learning.”

The biggest lesson Will has learned about being an entrepreneur since founding Heartlab in 2018 has been around how to deal with uncertainty, particularly when making decisions. He says, “Being an entrepreneur is a fascinating career where you’re expected to know a lot of different things and perform to a high degree in an environment where there is a lot of uncertainty about performance. There’s an aspect of needing to make good decisions in the absence of all the right answers. You know that you want to do this thing, like build a successful product, but whether you’ve built a successful product isn’t a yes or no answer. And if you’ve built a product, will you be able to sell it? It is the right time for the market? You have to learn to deal with all kinds of ‘not knowing’ along the way. I also learned that office furniture is really expensive!”

Will had his first experience with business in high school when he founded a company selling robots for children to learn about electronics and programming. At university, his knowledge of entrepreneurship was accelerated when he volunteered to mentor a student team through Velocity, the University of Auckland’s entrepreneurial development programme delivered through the Business School’s Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. He says, “Mentoring and leadership is something that’s very psychological. You have to understand how people think and react to things. I think it’s pretty well known that teaching is a good way to learn yourself, and I’ve found that it’s a similar case with mentoring. The experience provided me with an opportunity to do a lot of self reflection, which led to me understanding and learning more about myself as an entrepreneur and leader.” 

HeartLab raised $1.1 million in their first round of seed funding late last year in an investment round led by Icehouse Ventures and supported by US-based VC firm Founders Fund. This has allowed them to grow their team from two to ten. They are now focused on delivering beta pilot software to a handful of clinical sites around New Zealand and the US and obtaining FDA clearance so that their technology can be more widely used. 

Thinking about the future, Will plans to keep innovating within their current space. “I think there’s a lot of room in what we’re doing now to improve and add new functionality. We sort of view this as step one. We’re going to build an awesome reporting tool for cardiologists that lets them do their job better. Then, once doctors have learned to use and trust AI, we can do really cool new things like automated diagnostics. It would be a genuine quantum leap in cardiology.”

“The coolest bit of advice I’ve been given is to take lots of photos,’ says Will. “Someone said to me, ‘whether they’re good or bad, you’ll want to remember those times.’ We’ve got a really strong team of people who love working together and love what we work on. They’re some of the best friends I’ve ever made, which makes this a pretty exceptional experience. With the times we’ve had together, I’m glad that advice about capturing those moments is one that we’ve taken to heart.”

Velocity Team 2020
Velocity Team 2020

social media

13 May 2021

HeartLab, a venture founded by University of Auckland Science alumnus Will Hewitt, is building the world’s first end-to-end solution for echocardiography, a medical test that uses sound waves to produce live images of patients’ hearts.

Echocardiography is a doctor’s ‘go-to’ scan if they know or suspect that a patient has some form of heart disease. The test provides insight into things like how the heart and its valves are functioning and potential blood clots in the chambers. Around 100,000 of the non-invasive, non-radiating, low cost tests are done in New Zealand every year; in the US, the number is approximately 34 million.

Given that tests are carried out so frequently, Will saw an opportunity to use AI to enhance the entire workflow. He explains, “Echocardiography begins with a technician moving a probe around the patient’s chest, essentially taking a video of their heart from different angles that doctors can use to diagnose a range of different heart diseases. The problem kicks in afterwards. You’ve got cardiologists who spent 15 years in training sitting there manually annotating these images. They’re looking at them, taking measurements, hand typing notes, and writing repetitive reports. When you look at this situation from an innovation perspective, you think ‘this is a nice little use case for AI,’ because you’ve got a cut of highly trained, expensive professionals doing a menial task that could easily be automated.”

Will was a first year student working as an undergraduate researcher at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute (ABI) when he met HeartLab co-founder Dr. Patrick Gladding, a specialist in general cardiology and internal medicine. He says, “I was just an engineer who was really interested in working on heart problems, with a bit of background in entrepreneurship. There wasn’t really a defined ‘lightbulb’ moment, but we managed to land on this idea.”

Using AI to automate the process of taking measurements formed the crux of Will’s research at ABI. He then realised that while his algorithm was able to save time by taking a bunch of standard measurements and spitting them back to a clinician, he could take it one step further and make it even more valuable by integrating it into doctors’ entire workflow. “That’s where the end-to-end solution thing comes in,” says Will. “We percolate all the outputs from AI and highlight the best parts of the video. Rather than having doctors manually filter through 30 minutes of video, we highlight the most important milliseconds so they can spend less time sitting at the computer and more time with their patients.”

Will is driven by a love for medicine and the meeting of art and science. He says, “The way the body works is a fascinating, complicated problem. From an engineering perspective, I love building things that help people. At the end of the day, you get to actually build a tool that helps clinicians help patients, so you can see the human impact of what you’re doing in quite a genuine way.”

HeartLab has developed a robust process of iterating and improving on their product that includes running user interviews, getting feedback, and turning that feedback into features. Will says, “I can definitely say that the product we had 12 months ago looks nothing like the product we have today, and I think the product we have today is pretty fantastic compared to what we had 12 months ago. It’s about being massively user centric, and asking ourselves ‘How can we do every single thing possible to make this workflow awesome for cardiologists?’ Product design is really something that I’ve built my personal understanding of over the past six months, so it’s something we’re all still actively learning.”

The biggest lesson Will has learned about being an entrepreneur since founding Heartlab in 2018 has been around how to deal with uncertainty, particularly when making decisions. He says, “Being an entrepreneur is a fascinating career where you’re expected to know a lot of different things and perform to a high degree in an environment where there is a lot of uncertainty about performance. There’s an aspect of needing to make good decisions in the absence of all the right answers. You know that you want to do this thing, like build a successful product, but whether you’ve built a successful product isn’t a yes or no answer. And if you’ve built a product, will you be able to sell it? It is the right time for the market? You have to learn to deal with all kinds of ‘not knowing’ along the way. I also learned that office furniture is really expensive!”

Will had his first experience with business in high school when he founded a company selling robots for children to learn about electronics and programming. At university, his knowledge of entrepreneurship was accelerated when he volunteered to mentor a student team through Velocity, the University of Auckland’s entrepreneurial development programme delivered through the Business School’s Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. He says, “Mentoring and leadership is something that’s very psychological. You have to understand how people think and react to things. I think it’s pretty well known that teaching is a good way to learn yourself, and I’ve found that it’s a similar case with mentoring. The experience provided me with an opportunity to do a lot of self reflection, which led to me understanding and learning more about myself as an entrepreneur and leader.” 

HeartLab raised $1.1 million in their first round of seed funding late last year in an investment round led by Icehouse Ventures and supported by US-based VC firm Founders Fund. This has allowed them to grow their team from two to ten. They are now focused on delivering beta pilot software to a handful of clinical sites around New Zealand and the US and obtaining FDA clearance so that their technology can be more widely used. 

Thinking about the future, Will plans to keep innovating within their current space. “I think there’s a lot of room in what we’re doing now to improve and add new functionality. We sort of view this as step one. We’re going to build an awesome reporting tool for cardiologists that lets them do their job better. Then, once doctors have learned to use and trust AI, we can do really cool new things like automated diagnostics. It would be a genuine quantum leap in cardiology.”

“The coolest bit of advice I’ve been given is to take lots of photos,’ says Will. “Someone said to me, ‘whether they’re good or bad, you’ll want to remember those times.’ We’ve got a really strong team of people who love working together and love what we work on. They’re some of the best friends I’ve ever made, which makes this a pretty exceptional experience. With the times we’ve had together, I’m glad that advice about capturing those moments is one that we’ve taken to heart.”


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