WRITER: Charlotte Chalklen
Photography: David Solm
Providing Artificial Intelligence-driven cloud-based image analysis that can improve outcomes and cut costs of IVF Life Whisperer is an example of how disruptive technologies and dynamic teamwork can bring about positive change, sooner.
Ten years ago, Michelle Perugini was a stem cell biologist with an entrepreneurial itch to scratch. While excited by her work, she wanted to help actualise applications faster. A decade on, and she’s steered several high-tech start-ups to success. Her latest, Life Whisperer, is poised for success after being named ‘best idea’ in Richard Branson and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak’s Talent Unleashed awards.
Life Whisperer is an artificial intelligence (AI) company that uses non-invasive image analysis to improve the selection of healthy embryos for IVF implantation. When stakes are high, and success rates are low, Life Whisperer offers a welcome alternative for couples wanting to have children.
Conceived in late 2016, Life Whisperer’s fast-track is no fluke, but borne from the experience of Perugini’s previous start-up, ISD Analytics, which she developed over eight years with her husband, former defence scientist Don Perugini. An AI-driven behavioural modeling system to predict consumer behavior, ISD Analytics, was sold in 2015; Perugini says lessons learned from that start-up experience have been invaluable.
“The reason we’ve been able to get Life Whisperer up so quickly is because we’ve done it before,” she says. “To do that first time without any commercialisation experience is really difficult.”
Building a team with the know-how to take a disruptive idea forward is a crucial first-step for any start-up.
Perugini advises tapping in to incubation and mentoring programs—it was while working as a mentor on one such scheme that she came into contact with Life Whisperer co-founder, Jonathon Hall, a physicist and nanotechnology researcher with a concept around using non-invasive technology to better select healthy embryos during IVF.
“I fell in love with the idea,” Perugini says. “Jonathon was very passionate about commercialising and together we had the perfect skill set to make it happen—my work in stem cell biology, Don’s AI background, and Jonathon’s computer vision and physics know-how.”
Current IVF techniques have clinicians looking down microscopes to assess what is a viable embryo; Life Whisperer looks at tens of thousands of previous images and detects complex patterns that the human brain can’t compute to identify healthy embryos, so achieves this much faster.
With cloud technology, the platform can be delivered instantly to clinics around the globe. It’s the ultimate disruptive technology that is set to expand an untapped market: Perugini says that while official reports estimate around two million couples undergo IVF each year, the number of infertile couples is closer to 140 million.
“The reasons those numbers are so small is because of the low success rates, the high cost, and availability,” Perugini says. “We’re hoping to change that and make IVF more affordable and available, preventing couples from having to go through what’s often a very drawn out and traumatic process.”
With change occurring at such a fast pace, the risk of being usurped by other disruptive developments is very real.
“The one way that you can keep ahead of the curve is by constantly having iterations of products over time so that you’re always evolving and improving the technology and broadening its capability,” Perugini says.
“So, if this is version one, what will version two or three look like? And how can we evolve to deliver improved accuracy or outcomes for the patient, or deliver something of greater value to clinics?”
Ethical considerations are also critical. Despite their potential (or indeed because of it), AI technologies raise concerns around human labour becoming obsolete. Perugini sees much of this as misplaced.
“There’s still a need for that interactive component and that’s what people are good at. The things that we shouldn’t be doing are those very mundane and repetitive jobs—why not get computers to do that so we can focus on more creative and intelligent tasks?”
“Society grows because of disruption and it’s exciting that technology’s enabling us to do things quicker, affording a whole range of opportunities from which we can leverage and create.”
Perugini’s advice for would-be entrepreneurs? Embrace failure and stop glorifying success.
“Seeing failure as this big dark looming cloud really doesn’t help anyone,” she says. “Failure is the way you learn, but you need to fail small and often, pick up on those failures, learn and evolve, and eventually you’ll get to a success point.”
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