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From AI to Digital Therapeutic Apps, Meet the 2018 Digital Trailblazer Award Finalists

by | Jul 25, 2018

Healthcare is seeing an explosion in the use of data analytics, machine learning tools, wearable devices, mobile apps, and other digital technologies. Software products are not only augmenting the capabilities of doctors—in some cases, the digital product is itself being prescribed as a treatment. In recognition of the growing impact of such technologies in healthcare, this year’s Xconomy Awards includes a new Digital Trailblazer category. Here’s more on the finalists.

—The Learning Corp, makers of Constant Therapy

The Learning Corp has developed a mobile app, dubbed Constant Therapy, that it has said digitizes and enhances the exercises that patients do with their speech-language pathologists and brain-rehab clinicians. The software is geared toward patients such as children with speech and language impairments, as well as people recovering from traumatic brain injuries or strokes. The product is based on research conducted by Swathi Kiran (a Learning Corp co-founder) at Boston University into neural plasticity—the idea that the brain can rewire itself and improve its performance with practice.

Constant Therapy lets patients continue treatment at home and track their progress. For caregivers, the five-year-old company is accumulating exercise data that might be used to help deliver more personalized care and perhaps new insights into how patients relearn lost skills. The app has been used by tens of thousands of patients at healthcare facilities such as Massachusetts General Hospital and VA medical centers located around the country, says president and founder Veera Anantha.

The Learning Corp has 25 employees and has raised $13 million from investors to date, Anantha says. Its backers include Golden Seeds, Kapor Capital, and Community Health Network of Connecticut.

—Akili Interactive Labs

Video games as treatments for medical conditions sounds far-fetched, but Akili Interactive Labs might be on the cusp of turning the concept into accepted medical practice. Created by PureTech Health seven years ago, Akili is developing mobile video games designed to assess and treat several cognitive disorders. AKL-T01, its flagship experimental product aimed at attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), is currently under FDA review, CEO Eddie Martucci says. If cleared by federal regulators, it would be the first video game approved to treat a disease and the first “prescription digital medicine” for children with ADHD, Martucci says.

Akili’s software produces sensory stimuli on the screen intended to “activate” specific neural networks and improve brain function, the company has said. In a 348-patient randomized, controlled trial, children and adolescents with ADHD who used AKL-T01 for four weeks showed statistically significant improvement on a psychiatric test used to screen for ADHD and measure attention, Akili said in December. Akili hasn’t published the study’s full results, but a paper is in the works and Akili plans to share more data at a medical meeting this fall, Martucci says.

Akili, an Xconomy Awards finalist in the Innovation at the Intersection category last year, has raised more than $97 million from investors, including Amgen Ventures and Merck’s M Ventures.


Wearable device makers frequently tout the health benefits of their products (think step counters, heart rate monitors, and so on). Few of them, however, have been validated by the FDA. Empatica received FDA clearance this year to begin selling its Embrace smartwatch, which helps detect epileptic seizures. The MIT Media Lab spinout claimed to be the first smartwatch cleared by the FDA for use in neurology.

Empatica developed a machine learning algorithm that detects convulsive seizures by analyzing biometric data from Embrace’s embedded sensors, including one that tracks subtle electrical changes on the skin’s surface related to nervous system activity. In a clinical trial that monitored data from 135 patients recorded over 272 days, the device detected all of the patients’ 40 dangerous seizures, Empatica said. The company also developed an app that sends alerts to caregivers when seizures occur.

Empatica has 52 employees and has raised $7.5 million from investors, the company said in an e-mail. Its co-founders include Rosalind Picard, the MIT Media Lab researcher who is a finalist for this year’s Innovation at the Intersection category.

—John Halamka, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

Throughout John Halamka’s tenure as chief information officer of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, he has often challenged the status quo in healthcare technology. When he arrived two decades ago, he says he pushed the organization to move its homegrown electronic medical records system to the Web. (This was years before “the cloud” entered the tech lexicon; it was known as “remote hosting” back then, Halamka says.) The decision was—and still is—unusual in healthcare: most hospitals and clinics that are scrapping paper-based records systems buy software from companies such as Epic Systems or Cerner (NASDAQ: CERN), with data often stored in on-premise servers.

Beth Israel’s Web-centric, cloud-hosted system has helped the hospital’s IT operations run more efficiently, enabled experimentation with new technologies, and saved money, Halamka says. Commercial vendors took notice: in 2015, Beth Israel sold its electronic health records software and clinical applications system to Watertown, MA-based Athenahealth (NASDAQ: ATHN), a developer of cloud-based healthcare software.

This year, Halamka helped launch a healthtech research center and incubator at Beth Israel, which has a team of about 20 clinicians, engineers, and project managers, he says. Halamka, who is also an emergency physician and Harvard Medical School professor, says much of the center’s work focuses on applications of machine learning and other artificial intelligence tools, as well as exploring new technologies, such as blockchain systems, that are “not quite ready” for the frontlines of healthcare.


Kyruus is trying to solve some big problems in healthcare: matching patients with caregivers who have the right expertise to treat their conditions, and making the appointment scheduling process faster and easier. To do that, the eight-year-old startup has taken a data analytics approach that attempts to “essentially do what ‘Moneyball’ has done for baseball, in the world of physician networks,” says Kyruus co-founder and chief strategy officer Julie Yoo.

Patients are dealing with an “access paradox,” she says. They often must wait weeks to see a doctor, yet hospitals and clinics usually operate at only “60 to 80 percent capacity utilization,” Yoo says. Kyruus’s caregiver search, referral, and appointment-scheduling tools help close that gap between demand and supply, with the aim of getting patients better care in a timely fashion, and increasing the efficiency of healthcare organizations.

She wouldn’t share Kyruus’s revenues, but she says sales have doubled in each of the past two years. More than 450 hospitals nationwide use the company’s software, and Kyruus has been forming partnerships with technology companies like IBM (NYSE: IBM) and Salesforce (NYSE: CRM). Kyruus has 140 employees and has raised $75 million from investors, including Highland Capital Partners, Venrock, and McKesson Ventures, Yoo says.


Pathologists provide the “ground truth” for disease diagnosis by studying tissue samples from patients, says PathAI co-founder and CEO Andy Beck. But they still typically make diagnoses by looking at these samples through microscopes. PathAI’s team is developing machine learning technologies and other digital tools aimed at helping pathologists detect disease more quickly and precisely.

They’ve already shown it’s possible. Two years ago, Beck, PathAI co-founder Aditya Khosla, and vice president of machine learning Dayong Wang were part of a team of researchers that demonstrated a deep learning system that could analyze microscope images of breast biopsies and identify cancer with almost the same accuracy as a pathologist. The pathologist’s accuracy rate improved when the human’s diagnoses were combined with the automated system’s analysis.

Beck’s two-year-old company is working with Philips to develop software for automated detection of breast cancer from digitized slides. Drug development is another focus area. PathAI’s customers include pharmaceutical companies, such as Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY), who are using the startup’s software to analyze pathology samples from clinical trials to better understand which patients respond to a drug and why.

Beck says PathAI has 40 employees and has raised $15 million in venture capital from General Catalyst Partners and Pillar Companies, among others.

—Pear Therapeutics

Pear Therapeutics’ name is a pun referring to the startup’s efforts to “pair” medically beneficial software with prescription drugs and other treatments. It also signals Pear’s “audacious goal of becoming the most successful tech company ever named after a fruit, and putting Apple to shame,” CEO Corey McCann jokes. That might not come to fruition (sorry, couldn’t resist), but five-year-old Pear does claim a milestone in digital therapeutics: last September, its flagship product, “reSET,” became the first software the FDA has cleared to be prescribed to help treat a disease.

The software is designed to deliver cognitive behavioral therapy to substance use disorder patients—specifically those struggling with addiction to alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, or stimulants—in tandem with standard outpatient treatment programs. The system combines a mobile app for patients and a Web dashboard for clinicians to track progress. In a 12-week, randomized clinical trial involving 399 patients, those who used reSET in combination with counseling had more success abstaining from using than a control group that only received face-to-face counseling.

The FDA is weighing approval of similar Pear software that would be prescribed to help treat opioid addiction in combination with opioid replacement drugs like buprenorphine or methadone. If all goes as planned, Pear—which has offices in Boston and San Francisco—intends to begin selling both products by the end of the year, McCann says. His company struck a deal in April with Sandoz, a division of pharmaceutical giant Novartis, to help it try to win insurance reimbursement for its first two “prescription digital therapeutics” and bring them to market.

“This is obviously a big inflection point for us, and for the space,” McCann says.

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