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Taking on depression using AI

McGill-based startup nabs first place and $35,000 in IBM Watson AI XPRIZE

The Aifred Health team pose for a group pic

Members of the Aifred Health team competing in the $5-million IBM Watson AI XPRIZE, including co-founders Sonia Israel and David Benrimoh (front row centre).

The competition is not over yet, but the recognition is a significant boost.

McGill-based startup Aifred Health recently nabbed first place and a $35,000 Milestone Award in the latest stage of the IBM Watson AI XPRIZE. By doing so, they also became one of 30 teams to qualify for the next phase of the four-year, $5-million competition whose final winner will be announced in 2020. The XPRIZEs are international monetary rewards meant to encourage technological development to benefit humanity.

Founded by McGill students and alumni, Aifred straddles the realms of technology and medicine where it is poised to contribute to one of society’s greatest health-care needs.

The Aifred team is working on an app that, in its first phase, will help both clinicians and patients track and optimize depression treatment and results. A second phase, with AI personalization, will address which treatment should be used for a given individual patient.

The end of 2018 was a busy time for Aifred – whose name is a riff on Alfred, Batman’s loyal aid, and AI, or artificial intelligence.

Last semester, they were a part of the Centech MedTech Acceleration Program, a free 12-week medical technology incubator, run jointly by McGill’s Faculty of Medicine and the École de Technologie Supérieure start-up incubator, Centech. They also completed the Desjardins Lab “startup in residence” program.

The hard work is paying off – as demonstrated by the latest XPRIZE result.

“For the XPRIZE, the product has to be tested in the real world,” explains David Benrimoh, MDCM’16, a psychiatry resident at McGill and co-founder and CEO of Aifred.

“That’s great for us because we’re a clinical application and we already have protocols for clinical trials that have received conditional approval from the Douglas Mental Health University Institute.”

Benrimoh explains the challenge that is fueling the team’s work: “It’s really unsatisfying to know we are so bad at predicting which patient is going to respond well to which treatment.”

The current method of trial and error in depression treatment can lead to extended treatment periods and worsened symptoms.

It’s especially frustrating because better treatment isn’t unattainable.

“We have the best practice guidelines and evidence, but they’re not in any clinically accessible format,” explains Sonia Israel, BSc’18, co-founder and director of partnerships at Aifred.

“Rather, they’re published in 20-30 page manuscripts that no doctor has the time to go through in the precious few minutes that are allotted for each patient.”

That’s where the AI comes in to make that information available to the doctor for a given patient. Eventually Aifred hopes to move beyond depression to help treat other psychiatric disorders.

Israel has a longstanding interest in psychiatry and neuroscience, with lived experience of watching family and friends go through depression treatment.

“I noticed that there didn’t seem to be any solid evidence base for what treatments patients are receiving,” she says.

Aifred’s goal is to empower both the physician and the patient.

“We’re building this to be about joint decision making,” says Benrimoh. “The patient and the clinician work together – the patient provides the data, the clinician interprets it, but they make the decision together during the appointment.”

Prizes and other support

Aifred’s technological approach is getting resounding approval from people in a position to judge the project not just for its ambitious social agenda but also for its artificial intelligence.

As one of the few student-driven teams, they also won second place at the inaugural McGill Clinical Innovation Competition (CLIC) and Hakim Family Prize for Clinical Innovation in Health Care event in May 2018.

In addition to a cash prize of $5,000 that helped send Sonia Israel to Boston to represent Aifred at a McGill Demo Day to meet venture capitalists, a $40,000 service package has helped the company’s development. As part of that package, Aifred gained access to the Steinberg Centre for Simulation and Interactive Learning at McGill, where they’re planning a trial with doctors under simulated conditions.

The encouragement keeps coming. In the category of Best Use of AI in Food, Health and Medicine, Aifred won a 2018-19 Global Annual Achievement Award for Artificial Intelligence. Last October, representing McGill, they won $15,000 in the Project Par Excellence category at the Forces AVENIR awards, which celebrate Quebec’s exceptional students. They were also one of nine recipients of the Canadian Medical Association’s 2018 Joule Innovation grant.

The McGill factor

Both Israel and Benrimoh emphasize how crucial support from their alma mater has been.

“The support we’ve gotten at all levels has been really helpful in terms of bringing us to scale continuously, so we can do something of actual impact,” says Israel, citing help from McGill’s newly established Building 21 learning space, the Office of Student Life and Learning, and the Faculty of Medicine.

Israel herself is dedicated to Aifred. For now, she’s deferring fully funded graduate studies at McGill to pursue the project.

“Really my dream is to push the frontiers of clinical psychiatry, to see the impact in clinic and to see it help people,” she says.

The Montreal factor

For Benrimoh the benefit of being in Montreal comes down to the confluence of AI, neuroscience and medicine.

“Montreal is strong in all those domains, McGill especially. There’s also a general strength of interdisciplinarity and belief in people from different fields working together that I love here.”

He points out that medical technology using AI is a new space that didn’t exist until fairly recently. “Investors need to understand that the development cycles are longer, but once you actually build one of these apps, there’s a huge potential benefit because of the number of people you can reach,” says Benrimoh.

He and Israel are emphatic about their goals. As Benrimoh says, “We’re trying to have real significant impact on these issues that cost trillions of dollars across the world, and affect millions of people.”

Learn more about the donor-supported McGill Clinical Innovation Competition in the Faculty of Medicine or support the competition here.