Transforming the future of cancer diagnosis

Transforming the future of cancer diagnosis

Cancer remains a leading cause of death worldwide – and while this is only set to increase, the number of pathologists continues to decrease. That’s where the Singapore-based healthtech startup Qritive steps in, with its AI-driven analysis that allows for more rapid and precise diagnoses and a global reach.

In 2009 Aneesh Sathe, a graduate student with an interest in both biology and computation, was embarking on his PhD research at the National University of Singapore. His studies led him on a meandering journey from quantum mechanics to fermentation – but what captured his attention most was a subset of research called mechanobiology, in which you look at the world of cells through the lens of physics and engineering. During his research he found that the analysis of biological images was a laborious process. He created a program that used machine learning and AI to assist him: “It brought the time down from three or four weeks, to 10 minutes.” 

Sathe was working on innovative ways to use AI to identify cancer cells and, after completing his PhD, was eager to apply his skills in the medical sector. One area that was in dire need of support, he discovered, was pathology, which led him to co-found Qritive alongside Kaveh Taghipour in 2017. The Singapore-based startup is dedicated to using AI to help pathologists accelerate cancer diagnoses by sparing them the time and labour of processing large data sets. Today, Qritive has a team of 20, works with a network of more than 150 pathologists and has analysed almost half a million images. In January it received $7.5 million in funding to develop new products and expand its operations geographically.

Aneesh Sathe, co-founder of the healthtech startup Qritive, which uses AI to accelerate cancer diagnoses

Pathologists have a crucial role in medical teams – about 70 per cent of hospital decisions are made with their input, says Sathe – but are in short supply. This specialist field has long been viewed as an unattractive route to take for aspiring medical professionals and as the number of pathologists in training continues to fall, demand has never been higher. This is partly due to the growing number of diagnostic tests, as well as the complexity of undertaking them. Cancer rates are also rising worldwide, correlating with aging populations, and by 2040 there will be 28 million new cases each year – a 54.9 per cent rise on today, according to Cancer Research UK. 

Qritive’s software was trained by working pathologists, but it is not a replacement for a human. Sathe is keen to state that the AI does not make a diagnosis, merely provides information from an image faster and more accurately than the human eye. “There could be very fine patterns to pick up,” he says. “In some cases, you need to count millions of cells to establish a ratio and treat the patient accordingly. Most often it’s an estimate, but if a computer can count it, the result is much more accurate by default.”

Persuading hospitals to take a bet on Qritive’s system, however, was an early obstacle for the company. It needed rigorous research to back up the software, says Sathe, “research that doctors can trust”. This comes at a cost, which, with limited funding, was the biggest challenge. The team’s expertise also had to evolve – Qritive began operations as a group of engineers collaborating with hospitals, but Sathe soon realised this was only one aspect, and the company had to build up a medical team to complement it. It now employs two full-time pathologists. 

Aneesh Sathe completed his Ph.D. in Mechanobiology at the National University of Singapore where he developed computer vision systems to identify cancer cells.
Credit: istockphoto

It took two years for Qritive to publish its first studies. Seeing its clients use its tools a year later in Singapore, then in some of the largest hospitals in India, was a significant step for the startup. “It proved the tech was feasible, but people also wanted to use it,” explains Sathe. More recently, Qritive has gained traction in the US, too.

By creating a digital, connected space for pathologists to operate within, Sathe hopes his product will be a more holistic solution for hospitals. He also hopes Qritive will make diagnostic expertise more accessible to hospitals and patients in developing regions, such as Africa (where there is one pathologist for every million people) and even in rural parts of Europe. “In these smaller towns it takes way too long,” he says. “The patient has to be sent to the big hospital in the city to get a diagnosis. If we can democratise who gets access to this care, I see that as an area where we can grow.” 

Aneesh Sathe

Co-founder of the healthtech startup Qritive

Begins a six-year dual-degree MS and MTech programme at Savitribai Phule Pune University, for which only 30 students are selected each year from all over India


Becomes a research assistant at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore


Embarks on a PhD in mechanobiology at the National University of Singapore


Co-founds SiCel Innovations, which created microfluidic applications before becoming a consultancy


Spends three years developing tools to identify cancer cells using the latest machine-learning technology at the Mechanobiology Institute, Singapore, before co-founding Qritive as CEO


Qritive raises $7.5 million in funding for geographical and product expansion

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