In the more than 10 years since Dave Billiter helped create a digital pathology tool at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, it has been used—and refined—by pathologists at 65 institutions. Now, Billiter and his cofounder Simon Arkell are commercializing the platform, Virtual Imaging for Pathology Education and Research (VIPER), with a new startup: Deep Lens.
Like Nationwide Children’s, Deep Lens is based in Columbus, Ohio. It starts life with $3.2 million in seed funding, which will go toward offering the VIPER technology to pathologists on a global scale—for free. The funding, which comes from Sierra Ventures, Rev1 Ventures and Tamarind-Hill Fund, will also support further development of the VIPER platform.
VIPER started when Nationwide Children’s got its hands on a scanner that allowed the digitization of glass slides used in research. But generating a high-resolution image was half the challenge. The other half figuring out how to present those images and supporting information to pathologists in a way that streamlined their workflow, facilitated case review and supported clinical and translational research, Billiter said.
A team of data scientists and software developers at the hospital, as well as “direct access to an expert pathology network,” led to the creation of VIPER, which has since been iterated many times over. And it will keep evolving—based on user feedback, Deep Lens will add AI-powered image detection, workflow support, telepathology, cloud storage and built-in APIs that will allow biopharma companies and hardware and software vendors to integrate the platform, Deep Lens said in a statement.
But if Deep Lens is offering it for free, where will it make its money?
While it will be free for individual pathologists or pathology groups around the world, institutions or companies that become heavy users will have to pay a subscription fee, Arkell said. Pathology images are stored in the cloud and once a user exceeds a certain storage threshold, the fee will kick in.
VIPER’s diagnostic use is obvious, but one market Deep Lens is hoping to tap is drugmakers.
“We’re going to be working very closely with the pharmaceutical industry. What we’ve found is that Big Pharma companies are very, very motivated to go upstream from oncology to pathology so they can access and identify potential candidates for clinical trials,” Arkell said. “Recruitment for clinical trials is a big, expensive problem for that industry. What we provide is, for the first time, is a direct channel to pathology.”
Deep Lens is already in talks with a few pharma companies. Arkell has found that there likely doesn’t exist a single model for this type of collaboration. “What’s quite interesting is that there are different approaches that vary by partner,” he said.