KBS World | September 7, 2020

Today, we’re going to introduce Medi Whale, a healthcare startup that develops AI programs and devices capable of diagnosing eye and cardiovascular diseases through eye images. Let’s hear from company CEO Choi Tae-geun. 

Medi Whale was founded in December 2016. The company develops algorithms that predict cardiovascular disease and other diseases through retinal images. It was created by three people—me, a medical doctor who discovered my eye disease and a developer of deep learning algorithms. The three of us have our own respective goals, but all of us felt the need to work in this area and have demonstrated our abilities in the process.

Choi attended a science high school and graduated from Pohang University of Science and Technology. While consulting Rim Hyung-taek, a professor and ophthalmologist at Severance Hospital, Choi discovered that his right eye was severely affected by glaucoma. He didn’t show any particular symptoms before, so it was not until the disease progressed considerably that he found it. In the hopes of resolving the problem of patients who miss the proper treatment period, Choi set up his company.

I entered this field all because of my disease. One month before I started my own business, I found that I had glaucoma. I had hardly been aware of the disease, and I discovered it too late. Unfortunately, half of the visual field in my right eye is missing, and the field of vision in my left eye was partly damaged as well.

At first, I was quite depressed. It was difficult to accept my reality. But I thought I could use my condition to do something helpful for other people. It happened that the eye doctor who discovered my disease was well versed in deep learning and medical data analysis. He even had a bachelor’s degree in statistics. On top of that, it turned out that we attended the same high school. Although I had no medical knowledge, I was fully committed to resolving this problem, while he had a strong sense of duty as a medical doctor. We joined forces to create Medi Whale.

Data-based deep learning is used in a wide range of medical areas. For example, AI makes diagnoses, and doctors use accumulated data to analyze contributing factors that develop diseases so they can apply the findings to treatment tailored to particular patients.

Using deep learning technology, Medi Whale developed an AI diagnosis program called “DrNoon” in cooperation with Yonsei University’s Severance Hospital. “Noon” means “eye” in Korean. The solution analyzes the patient’s eye condition based on medical data collected from 100-thousand eye images. It is 95 percent accurate in determining any lesions in the eyes, including macular degeneration, retinal disease and glaucoma. Taking a step further, Medi Whale has also developed an AI program that diagnoses cardiovascular diseases through eye images.

Eyes have traditionally been considered vitally important. It has been believed that the eyes show signs of body organ issues. To some degree, that’s true. The eye is the only organ, through which blood vessels can be directly observed without an invasive method. We can see blood vessels in the eye simply casting light on it. Eye vessels are very important, as they are connected to the cerebral arteries and the carotid arteries. Problems in blood vessels negatively affect organs in the body, including the heart, the kidney and the brain. The eyes are in the middle of all of that. That’s why blood vessels in the eyes are damaged first before those in the heart or the brain fail. Before the heart or the brain is damaged, we want to observe any signs or symptoms through eyes.

The eye is the only organ whose arteries and veins can be directly observed. Through the eyes, it is possible to detect cardiovascular disease, which is the No.1 cause of death worldwide and the second-largest one for Koreans. In recognition of its advanced technology, Medi Whale was selected by Seoul City as one of the innovative companies to take part in the 2021 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It also won the top prize in the category of Smart Safety and Health.

It seems the global medical community is showing interest in the Korean company’s new technology of diagnosing cardiovascular diseases through eye images. It is said that world-renowned scholars in the area are making inquiries about collaboration.

Medi Whale’s technology enables doctors to predict cardiovascular diseases by observing any slight change in retinal blood vessels. Previously, the risk factors of the diseases were examined through the thickness of the artery walls or the coronary artery calcium score. But with these methods, it was difficult to predict the risks until the indications were conspicuous enough.

But we analyze retinal fundus images and observe any minor change in blood vessels to screen cardiovascular diseases. Of course, this is possible only when AI technology is used. That means the process is simpler but more accurate and advanced. This is our key technology.

Medi Whale’s goal is to distribute its AI-based eye examination device to local clinics and medical checkup centers nationwide so doctors can determine more easily whether patients have the early stages of eye or cardiovascular diseases. Patients will then get proper treatment earlier and prevent the disease from progressing.

Many people are concerned about cardiovascular diseases the leading cause of death. To find out any risk factors of the diseases, people should visit cardiologists or take complicated tests at medical checkup centers. On top of the difficulty in getting access to the traditional tests, the process is expensive.

If our device is distributed widely, people can easily get tested at clinics and health checkup centers in their neighborhood. All they have to do is get their eye images taken. It only takes three minutes. Then, an AI report shows the conditions of their blood vessels in the brain and heart. If there is any issue, they can learn about their conditions and how to get proper treatment. This process itself can prevent many diseases. To this end, we’ll make greater efforts to distribute our devices to many more clinics.

Medi Whale produces AI programs and devices that can find dangerous diseases in an early stage through a simple eye examination. Today, as always, the company is working hard, dreaming of a wonderful world where people will not miss opportunities for treatment but stay strong and healthy.