24-year-old Proscia CEO: '10 years from now, digital pathology will just be pathology'

After noticing how effective artificial intelligence could be in recognizing complex tissue patterns in images and potentially predicting cancer outcomes, 24-year-old CEO David West and two others embarked on a journey to help integrate AI solutions into pathology care, eventually creating their company, Proscia.

Despite the advances in technology that have been adopted in other disciplines, Mr. West and his co-founders realized that traditional pathology, which relies on analyzing tissue samples under a microscope, is still widely used today. Instead, the co-founders sought to teach providers, researchers and other healthcare professionals about the benefits of AI and how leveraging data could lead to faster workflows and better outcomes. Mr. West and his partners were recently named among Forbes' annual 30-under-30 people in healthcare for 2019.

Mr. West, a biomedical engineering graduate of Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins University, spoke with Becker's Hospital Review about the inspiration to found Proscia, his experience as a young entrepreneur and how he sees the healthcare industry evolving during the next several years.

Editor's note: Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Question: Where did your inspiration to found Proscia come from?

David West: I was fortunate to work with some well-known cancer researchers when I was at Johns Hopkins who were demonstrating how algorithms could be used to recognize complex patterns in images of tissue and predict cancer outcomes. At the time, it was very hard to capture the tremendous amount of data required to train deep-learning models — the infrastructure to deploy models was nonexistent, storage was expensive and image management was cumbersome, and the regulatory environment for digital pathology was steep.

We saw an incredible opportunity to build a great business, and that's what led us to found Proscia. Our team started by building out the foundational infrastructure that labs would need to go digital and leverage AI, while quietly developing a pipeline of algorithms that would live on this platform. We put the platform out as a free solution and it gained some serious traction among pathologists and researchers. An initial $2 million in seed funding gave my co-founders and I the opportunity to pursue Proscia full time, develop a mature enterprise platform and ramp up efforts in algorithm development. We recently closed on another $8.3 million in funding to accelerate operations.

Q: What were some of the challenges you faced when starting out?

DW: Translating theory into practice is no small task, especially in healthcare. We spend most of our time dealing with the challenges of delivering AI in real labs, beyond what's postulated in interesting academic papers. The scale of data required is massive, and the technology ecosystems to deploy the technology at scale are very complex. I think a lot of companies in our space are going to struggle with these challenges. It's hard work, and we're finally starting to see the fruits of our labor after many years.

We've had to approach our business from a customer-driven perspective. We've worked with thousands of customers, lab technicians [and] clinical partners, and conducted studies to gain valuable insight to guide our focus and our technology road map.

Q: How do you expect the healthcare industry to evolve during the next decade?

DW: Ten years from now, digital pathology will just be pathology. The standard of care will have shifted. As a result, I expect that access to care will be significantly more fluid and democratized for the patient since physical constraints for pathology will be eliminated. I also expect that computer systems will address the bulk of straightforward cases in certain subspecialties. This will be advantageous in that it will reduce the load on an already decreasing population of strained pathologists, a challenge that we're already starting to see in places like the U.K. We see one of Proscia's major contributions as helping labs become more data-driven. Efficiency is one of the major promises of digital pathology, and we believe that realizing this efficiency all starts with looking for meaningful insight in your data.

Q: Has being a young entrepreneur affected how you do business?

DW: Healthcare is a complicated beast, and being young is no excuse for failing to understand these intricacies. Even experienced entrepreneurs fail here. It forces us to go 110 percent, to deconstruct complexities, hire the best employees and build relationships that can help us advance our business through our product.

My generation is really the first that grew up fully connected, so we have high expectations when it comes to product design and user experience — for all applications that we use. It may be a bit of a generalization, but healthcare software, especially in the digital pathology space, is often well below the enterprise design standards we see in every other industry. That's because it's not just about looking pretty, but about being powerful and consistently working really well. Pathology runs on productivity, so there's no tolerance for clunky experiences.

Q: Outside of healthcare, what else piques your interest or curiosity?

DW: I'm interested in the philosophy of the mind, the history of mankind and our future alongside machines. I think what makes humans so awesome is that we're tool builders, and AI is the most powerful tool that we've ever created. Humanity seems to be running very fast toward something big as a species. Nobody quite knows what it is, but we're very close. This is already starting to open up huge opportunities, but it also creates challenges and raises new ethical questions. A lot of technologists like me are starting to think about the good things technology can do for the world and the dangers that might lie around the corner.

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