Women’s Day | AI Startup NIRAMAI Breaks Inhibitions Surrounding Breast Cancer
Wafting off the embarrassment around screening for breast cancer, this health-tech startup makes use of AI and thermal imaging technology to detect early signs of breast cancer.
There should never be a situation that leaves a person wondering about the what-ifs, and wish they had known earlier. An air of discomfort encircles around getting tested for breast cancer among women. While society is progressing by changing thinking patterns, do women really need to risk their well being for this?
Identifying this problem and experiencing the misfortune of missing early detection of breast cancer in two close relatives, Geetha Manjunath set out on a journey. She founded NIRAMAI in July 2016 after she witnessed two of her close family members suffer from breast cancer in their late 30s. With a Ph.D. from the Indian Institute of Science and a Management Education from Kellogg’s Chicago on her sleeve, she led many research projects at companies like Hewlett Packard and Xerox Corporation.
NIRAMAI was listed and awarded as one of the Top 100 AI startups in the world. They were also enlisted on the Top 150 Digital Health Startups in the world.
On the occasion of Women’s Day, Geetha Manjunath, CEO & CTO, NIRAMAI, gets into an exclusive interview with Radhika Udas from Express Computer.
How did the idea of Niramai develop and become what it is today?
I was a Senior Director in a corporate research lab working on multiple interesting use cases of AI with my team. The trigger to start working on this technology research problem was the loss of my close cousin sister to breast cancer with late detection of the disease. When I researched this issue with my team, we found out about thermography which had the ability to detect abnormalities in all age groups but had accuracy issues. I created a small team to explore the use of machine learning algorithms to address that gap, and when we started seeing early promising results, I decided to do this full time, quit my job and founded Niramai with my earlier team members Nidhi, Himanshu, and Siva.
Most women are hesitant to get their breast check-ups done. How do you think we can change this stigma?
Most of the women shy away from coming forward for screening due to a lack of awareness and shyness to disrobe in front of others. With our technology, we are trying to completely remove this perception. The screening test is portable, radiation-free, non-touch and no-see thereby adding to the psychological comfort factor to women. Women are also anxious about the results of a cancer test and hesitate to take the test. I think we need to let them know whether the test is positive or negative for her, it is good for her. Since only 1 in 25 is going to be positive, it is very likely she will be safe and it’s a relief to know that. Just in case she tests to be positive, then also it’s good – because she found that early and hence can have an effective treatment and get back to full happy life.
What technologies are being used in Niramai and what results are they giving?
Niramai’s solution Thermalytix® is developed to detect breast cancer at a much earlier stage than traditional methods or self-examination. The core technology of our solution is an artificial intelligence-led diagnostic platform that uses our patented machine learning algorithms for reliable and accurate breast cancer screening. The test is also highly accurate and found to be better than current tests in detecting cancer in even women younger than 40 years of age.
Being a woman in the technology space, what kind of challenges have you faced as an individual?
During my engineering days, I was one of the two girls in the class. I was the only woman during my Master’s, and again during my years at the work, I was the only woman in most teams and leadership teams. In the early days, I found that my ideas weren’t accepted easily in the team. There would be a greater pushback. Then, I would work late nights to build a prototype just to show that my idea wasn’t flimsy and had some stuff. It didn’t seem to need any kind of proof to be accepted if the idea was from a confident male colleague. I learned very early on that I had to put in double the efforts. Even today, I just don’t present any idea without backing it up with justifications, feasibilities, and a complete study. When I do that, some people say that I am defensive.
As a woman employee, I think we should forget the gender and give our best to any task or role. Your performance will speak for itself and remove all barriers or prejudice if any.
How do you plan on scaling Niramai?
Niramai is now available in 14 cities. We would like to expand across more cities and enable more women to benefit. We would like to partner with key hospitals, diagnostic chains, NGOs, corporates, Government, insurance vendors, and others for more key deployments and to conduct screening camps.
What made you pursue this combination of healthcare and technology?
I have always been interested in developing innovative technology-led solutions for meaningful challenging problems. When I saw a huge gap in healthcare systems today and an opportunity to enable better ways of diagnosing diseases using technology, I strongly felt the urge to pursue that path. It is immensely satisfying when you see technology really helping to save lives in real life.
Any ‘words of wisdom’ you wish to give young women entering the IT and healthcare industry?
Choose the path you love the most. Don’t be afraid. Be confident and pursue your passion. If you have the will and give your best of efforts, you will surely achieve your goal.