Ask most people on the street whether artificial intelligence, or AI, has arrived and the answer will likely be no. “Hey, run into any Blade Runner-esque ‘replicants’ at the supermarket lately?” But speak to scientists at the cutting edge, and you’ll get a different perspective.
Although we don’t yet have the walking, talking Hollywood version, we are starting to apply AI technology to many different tasks; and one of them, being undertaken right here at ThincLab, is the creation of human life.
Dr Jonathan Hall and Dr Michelle Perugini are co-founders of Adelaide-based start-up Life Whisperer, which has developed an AI-driven, cloud-based image analysis system to improve the selection of viable embryos for IVF implantation.
Working from offices at ThincLab, the pair are understandably excited about their product’s potential to make the IVF process faster, less expensive and mercifully less stressful for hopeful parents all over the world.
“We really feel for people who’ve been through the devastating emotions of unsuccessful IVF,” says Jonanthan, a computational physics and image analysis expert and University of Adelaide alumnus. “So we want to help families by deploying leading-edge technology, and we have the skills and drive to do it.
“Our approach doesn’t require significant process change for IVF clinics, it doesn’t tamper with the embryos, and doesn’t even require specialised hardware. This will hopefully reduce the barriers to use by clinics, and will see patients benefiting from the technology sooner.”
Michelle, internationally renowned in the fields of stem cell biology, advanced analytics, and AI, agrees:
We have a great deal of confidence around Life Whisperer’s ability to disrupt the fertility sector with a completely non-invasive AI-enabled solution that will improve the chances of IVF success.
The technology behind the system is remarkable. Firstly, clinics simply upload standard microscope images of embryos. Life Whisperer then uses proprietary algorithms—based on machine learning, statistics, and physics—to analyse the images and identify morphological features, often invisible to the human eye, that constitute a healthy embryo. It then reports its results, and stores them, together with the images, in a central data repository.
The story of how the business got started is almost as interesting. It was Jonathan who came up with the concept, and in 2016 he entered the idea in the Australian eChallenge program, run by the University of Adelaide’s Entrepreneurship, Commercialization and Innovation Centre (ECIC).
His team won both the Medical Innovation and Research Commercialisation categories, netting $20,000 in prize money. But even more valuable, Jonathan met Michelle. She had been one of the program mentors, and could see Jonathan was onto something special.
With shared excitement for the vision, and perfectly complementary skills, they quickly agreed to join forces. Then Michelle introduced Jonathan to a third valuable member of the team—her husband. Dr Don Perugini is an academic, entrepreneur, and internationally renowned expert in automation, analytics and the commercial application of AI.
Together, the Peruginis had already recently founded a venture called Presagen, which applies behavioral AI technology to automate complex human-centric tasks in businesses. So the fit was clear.
One had rapidly become three, and Life Whisperer was, if you’ll pardon the pun, “born”. The fledgling company secured its first round of funding in May 2017 through the SA Early Commercialization Fund initiative, administered by TechInSA, and is now seking a commercial partner to conduct its next technology-validation phase.
Following that, the team will pursue early investment to scale the system globally—and it doesn’t take a complex AI algorithm to confirm they have a good chance of getting it.