Akila Labs is a New York based startup founded in 2017, which utilizes artificial intelligence in preventive care management. Specifically, its learning platform and digital health coach assist individuals to “reverse” their prediabetic condition by combining insights and intelligence accumulated from smart phones, wearables, electronic health records (EHRs), and cloud computing, to devise comprehensive and personalized plans.
In an exclusive interview with AIMed, Prakash Hosalli, Akila Labs’ co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer reveals what AI in preventive care means to him and how his years of military training made him a better person to inculcate new technologies into healthcare.
AIMed: Could you please explain “Prediabetes”? Why does Akila chose to focus on diabetes prevention?
Hosalli: Prediabetes is a condition that can be detected with a simple blood test during one’s annual physical check-up. This test determines the level of blood glucose. If the levels are higher than normal, but not high enough to be considered diabetic, it is labelled as prediabetes. This is a really important test that gives a warning, especially to patients; telling them they need to change their lifestyle or they may risk facing a future with diabetes and other related illnesses like cardiovascular disease, kidney failure, and so on.
Diabetes prevention made a lot of sense, as we believe it is the best use case for us to prove the efficacy of our platform. We knew there were many applications of our platform but focusing on prediabetes helped us validate a lot of assumptions. This was important as it also allowed us to measure up against other available solutions, including CDC’s (US’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) Diabetes Prevention Program.
AIMed: In that case, what motivated you to start Akila?
Hosalli: We realized right off the bat that the confluence of readily available medical and genetics data, live data stream from IoT (Internet of Things: wearables devices, biosensors, activity trackers), combined with ubiquitous smartphone usage, cloud infrastructure, and increased digital literacy, made it the right time for an AI platform for solving big health problems. In fact, we also realized that the problem could only be solved by using AI.
As individuals without institutional knowledge of the healthcare industry, we assumed the problems faced by patients, needed to be solved by having their perspectives. At the same time, being consumers of the US healthcare system, we also happen to share that perspective. This allowed us to start attacking the problem with some amount of naivete, together with the eclectic experience of the founders in computer science research, hands on technology and product development, business management, and standup comedy!
AIMed: What a diverse group of talents! How about yourself? Coming from a military background, do you find it challenging to break into the healthcare industry? How has it helped you in your digital health career?
Hosalli: Having a military background helped me a lot, not only to break into the industry, but to use my experiences to design the product.
It may come as a surprise to many people, but military is not just about following orders. It also teaches you to be flexible, innovative and collaborative, to achieve your objectives. These skills are valuable, not just in technology and healthcare, but in any other fields too. They have proved to be pivotal for me. My “outsider” perspective has allowed me to constantly challenge the status quo and offer solutions that are out of the box.
For example, I think one of the keys in getting people to change their lifestyles, to become and stay healthy is provide coaching through trained professionals. I thought I understood the value of coaching better than the most people because I was a beneficiary of not just one, but many coaches during my time in the military. I also realized that providing that kind of coaching is extremely costly, and not everyone is as lucky as I was.
I have used my experiences of being a beneficiary and provider of good coaching, to challenge my team and keep relentless focus on rendering all possible benefits of coaching. The most exciting and creative part of the journey has been to translate the value of human coaching to a completely virtual coach; providing the same form of benefits digitally.
AIMed: After all, preventive medicine is a relatively domain, how does Akila set itself a cut above the rest?
Hosalli: Indeed, the domain is competitive but the scale of the problem is also enormous. We realized early on that the way we framed the problem itself, made us unique. I think most of us know the solution disease prevention: provide patients with more resources, especially through coaching to make them healthy. So, what we are trying to do is to use technology to provide millions of patients around the world, their own virtual health coach, for a fraction of the cost of a human coach.
We see this as a long-term challenge centered around individuals’ behaviour, that had to be solved efficiently via data science. We know AI had reached a point, where we had enough data to model patient behaviour and using behavioral science, it’s possible to make the right intervention at the right time to keep people healthy. So, we just built a product with features to achieve the goals.
AIMed: Could you please share with our readers, some of the recent projects Akila has been involved in or some of your upcoming plans.
Hosalli: We are conducting a research study at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, to validate our assumptions and have an objective measure of our platform and application. The initial results are very encouraging. Our present focus is to launch our platform commercially in 2020. This launch will target users looking to reverse their prediabetic conditions or just to become healthy.
We plan to reach our customers directly via smartphone applications, diabetes prevention program, employer provided health and benefits plans and exploring partnerships where we can provide our digital coach as a service. We will also have an Enterprise version available as a standalone product, or as an integrated service, to both the US and international markets.
I think healthcare has lagged in adoption of technology as a whole (not just AI), for many decades. One of the reasons being most systems and processes are built around the needs of payors (i.e., insurance companies, centralized healthcare systems), providers (hospitals) and pharmaceutical companies.
As such, when we started Akila, we already knew that AI could be the key to address the runaway healthcare costs in most parts of the world. The impact of AI can even be higher in preventive medicine, as our approach to blend AI with clinical research and behavioral science will ensure and strengthen our focus on patients’ needs, first and always.