Aegis, Northwell launch Optain with $12M for AI-powered disease detection

They say the eyes are the window to the soul, but a newly launched company is hoping they can also shed some light on early signs of disease.

Optain is the brainchild of Ascertain, a company creation platform that launched last year with $100 million as a joint venture between “startup studio” Aegis Ventures and Northwell Holdings, the venture arm of Northwell Health. Optain is the first company to come out of Ascertain and made its debut Tuesday with $12 million in seed funding.

All of Ascertain’s planned projects will be centered around the use of artificial intelligence to improve access to healthcare and the quality of the care itself. In Optain’s case, an AI tool will be tasked with spotting early signs of disease using only images of a patient’s eye.

“The healthcare industry has made a concerted effort in recent years to shift treatment from reactive sick-care to proactive preventive care, but many of the legacy screening and diagnostic technologies used by clinicians today are expensive and inaccessible,” Optain CEO Jeff Dunkel said in Tuesday’s launch announcement. “Optain will accelerate that shift and make preventive care ubiquitous by placing smarter, faster and more efficient diagnostic tools in the hands of clinicians everywhere.”

Optain’s AI relies on photos of the eye captured with a basic, portable retinal camera. Its analyses can screen for not only ophthalmic diseases, but also those located elsewhere in the body—for a total of 140 diseases—with a goal of detecting them as early as possible when they’re most treatable.

“The three most common eye diseases—diabetic retinopathy, age-related macular degeneration and glaucoma—can be detected far earlier with algorithmic retinal image analysis. These three diseases, however, are just the tip of the iceberg,” Mingguang He, M.D., Ph.D., the original inventor of the tech, said in the release.

“The eye is a window through which we can discern any disease that affects the microvascular system,” He continued. “This technology allows clinicians to act faster and prevent significant impacts on quality of life.”

He’s AI technology has already received regulatory clearances in Australia, New Zealand, Europe and beyond, where it’s sold by Eyetelligence, an Australian company formed in 2019. Rather than taking over those international sales, Optain will work in tandem with Eyetelligence, with an aim of bringing the technology to the U.S., where Northwell will serve as its flagship customer.

Though Optain represents the first company to come out of the Ascertain joint venture and the first time Aegis and Northwell have opted to invest in an AI technology already being widely commercialized overseas, it’s far from their first team-up.

Earlier this year, Ascertain unveiled a new AI algorithm that’s designed to predict preeclampsia. And just a few months before that, in November, Aegis and Northwell made another foray into femtech with the launch of Upliv, a virtual care platform aimed specifically at helping to manage menopause.