By David Silverberg
The founders of Phenomic AI are focused on a disease that affects all Canadians: Cancer is the leading cause of death in Canada and is responsible for 30 percent of all deaths in the country, according to recent statistics.
What Sam Cooper and Oren Kraus aim to accomplish sounds lofty but could be an incredibly vital piece in the puzzle to fight cancer: Using AI tech, they want to use machine-learning algorithms to help scientists studying image screenings to learn which cells are resistant to chemotherapy, thus fighting the recurrence of cancer in many patients.
“My PhD at U of T was looking at developing deep-learning techniques to automate the process of analyze images of cells, so I wanted to create a company looking at this issue,” says Kraus in an interview.
Their B2B software wants to solve a key pain-point for cancer researchers: combing through thousands of cell-culture images and identify the particular cells responsible for being chemo-resistant, and then develop compounds to target those cells.
Founded in June 2017, Phenomic AI is young in a very long game to fight cancer, and Kraus’s coding smarts are backed up by his co-founder, Sam Cooper. The London, UK native graduated from the Institute of Cancer Research and Imperial College London, where he majored in biochemistry.
Cooper spends his days meeting with potential investors and partners, such as heading to the Bay Area in the U.S. to promote Phenomic AI’s to Big Pharma executives and venture capitalists. “I’ve noticed how VC firms are passionate about investing in this space, not just to get solid returns but also to help benefit the world,” Cooper says.
They have so far inked a partnership with Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children in order to study a hereditary childhood disease, but Cooper and Kraus can’t say much more than that for now.
Kraus is “in the lab”, as they say, building out the technology for Phenomic’s platform, and is mostly focused on deep learning methods for microscopy data.
On Phenomic’s end-goal, Kraus explains, “There are key underlying mechanisms that allow cancer cells to survive in first place. If we can target those underlying mechanisms than prevent cancer coming back in entire groups of patients, that’s what we’re going for.”
Kraus adds that being able to solve scientific problems has long been fascinating for him, but with such levity placed on the challenge of determining how to kill drug-resistant cancer cells, the work is even more fulfilling.
The Phenomic AI team, which aims to add more staff in the coming months, was even treated to a visit from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last year during a U of T demo day. Kraus recalls how Trudeau asked if the startup was applicable to clinical data, and Kraus answered, “Yes” and as brief as that exchange was, it inspired Kraus. “The federal government is committed to investing in this area and that kind of support is great,” he says.
Cooper stresses how Phenomic AI comes as a critical time for drug researchers and biotech startups. “We have a chance to reinvent how drugs are made, and our technology can create an ‘agile drug discovery’ process that speeds up the drug creation process. And that’s an awesome thing to be a part of.”
Photo by: David Silverberg