Just Entrepreneurs | March 9, 2023

Kevin T. Choi is the founder and CEO of Mediwhale, the AI-powered health diagnostics company that uses retina scans to detect heart and kidney disease risk. At the age of 24, he was diagnosed with glaucoma, losing 40% of his vision. It was too late when he noticed that something was wrong. This personal cause became a purpose to detect diseases early and he founded Mediwhale soon after in 2016. Combining deep learning algorithms with a large data set of retina images, he tries to detect disease risk before symptoms appear.

Tell us about Kevin T. Choi?

Curiosity is the word I can describe myself. I enjoy observing how things work, understanding the mechanics and principles behind them, and sharing the results with others. This made me focus on health issues that I have suffered from and start a business that I can contribute to building healthy lives.

There’s always a lightbulb moment before the beginning of a new venture. What was that moment for you?

I was not aware of glaucoma happening severely in my right eye. Since glaucoma is more common as you age, I could not suspect it when I was only 24 years old. I found it by accident, but it was too late to reverse the time and treat what’s already happened. Only after I lost 40% of my vision, I realized the importance of early detection of diseases. This changed my whole life, and I became very interested in the medical field, especially areas related to the eyes.

What keeps you motivated as an entrepreneur when you hit bumps in the road?

I still remember the day after I was diagnosed with glaucoma. I woke up in the morning, opened my eyes, and blinked my eyes to check whether I could see the ceiling clearly. Glaucoma was a silent- killer that I could not notice its progress. I believed I was a healthy young man, but everything changed in a day. I was not ready to accept the fact and devastated. If I knew it early, I could have been treated well and saved my vision.

There must be people like me who suffer from these silent-killer diseases. Cardiovascular-related diseases are considered to be silent killers. I believe it is my duty to help people like me to figure out their disease risks early. Their lives could be totally different if they detect their diseases early and treat them carefully. My eagerness to solve this issue is what motivates and drives me to move forward even on a bumpy road.

What does your business offer its target audience?

The eye is the only organ where blood vessels are directly seen without any invasive measures. By training and validating the AI engine with blood vessels in extensive retina data sets worldwide, we are able to detect blood vessel-related disease risks before any symptoms appear. The disease coverage is wide starting from cardiovascular disease, our current focus, to kidney, eye, biological age, and so on. The AI can automatically calculate the risks and even detect minor changes in blood vessels that human doctors cannot find.

The most accurate way to diagnose cardiovascular disease risk is to take a heart CT scan and get a coronary artery calcium score. However, patients need to go to big hospitals for CT scans as primary care is usually not equipped with that. Moreover, it takes weeks to get the results as the scans are read by radiologists and then cardiologists. It is not safe due to radiation exposure and is expensive.

Retina scan is a fast, affordable, and safe way that can be done in primary care. Moreover, we stratify the risk groups clearly similar to how a heart CT scan works, and proved that the retina scan has the same results (concordance index) as the heart CT scan.

How do you set yourself apart from other businesses in your industry?

Mediwhale has a distinctive AI technology and extensive clinical evidence. I’ve been eager to solve this health issue with a strong mission since 2016 and ended up having the biggest and the best data sets in the world. The deep learning algorithm has been trained and validated using the data, and we were tested through the rigorous lens of the traditional medical field. Numerous research articles have been published in top-tier medical journals, and commercial products are launched and approved in APAC and the EU. That is the reason why Mediwhale is outstanding in retina scan-based diagnosis in the world.

With all the success stories around entrepreneurship and how innovative people have to be to take the leap. How do you think you’ve innovated your sector and why?

I focus on the essence of the problem. Mediwhale was started from the eyes, but it is not an eye start-up. The core is to diagnose disease risk with ease using the eye as a biomarker. Therefore, I’ve innovated the sector by understanding current diagnostic measures, finding the unmet needs of medical professionals in the process, and providing solutions using eyes.

Our current focus is cardiovascular disease which is a natural starting point for blood vessel diseases. Mediwhale understands what cardiologists need in preventing cardiovascular diseases and was recognized by them using the traditional validation method in cardiology and following the current cardiology work process. Mediwhale is innovating how to detect cardiovascular disease risk using a retina scan, a simple and easy method.

What plans do you have for Mediwhale over the next two years?

I plan to grow Mediwhale enormously. I named the company to be the whale in the medical field, and that’s what I’ll do over the next two years.

Since I go hiking every weekend, I hope to spend more time hiking with friends and family. Also, starting my own family is another plan in a near future.

Tell us about your journey into this market.

There are three memorable moments throughout my journey.

When I started the business, I was disregarded by the doctors whom I asked for advice. Since I was not a doctor, they disrespected me and my idea and even slammed doors in front of me. This made me more motivated and passionate about the work to show them what I could do. At the same time, I realized how conservative they are and the importance of medical validation and clinical evidence to persuade them in accepting new ideas.

After witnessing our AI engine work in external validation sets, especially in multi-ethnical patient data, I felt confident that we could change the worldwide clinical field.

Recently, I am finally recognized by doctors, especially by the key opinion leaders in cardiology who have used our product and seen its value. They acknowledge our product and are willing to use it in the real world. Their appreciation is a huge leap from the disrespect I got a few years ago from doctors.

What’s the biggest risk to your business and why?

The biggest risk to our business is the disregard by the doctors. Medical science is built upon strong evidence, and that is the only way it can save lives and make people healthy. Doctors are in general suspicious about new approaches as the risk of following an unproven path is too high.

Therefore, there’s only one way to overcome this barrier: To build strong clinical evidence that doctors can trust. We collected epidemiological cardiology clinical cohorts around the world in various ethnicities, trained and validated our AI engine using the data, and published the results in top-tier peer-reviewed medical journals. As a result, we were cited as one of the most innovative digital health publications in 2021 by the European Heart Journal and presented three abstracts in the American Heart Association’s Scientific Session 2022. We’ll continue to strengthen the clinical evidence and gain doctors’ trust.

What’s the most important question entrepreneurs should be asking themselves?

What is the direction, and how badly do you want to proceed?

How do you believe the evolution of tech will impact your industry over the next 10 years?

The traditional way of improving health happened in three phases: Recognition of symptoms, evaluation, and treatment. The evolution of tech will reform the process over the next 10 years. The new phases are interests in health, prediction before symptoms appear, and preventive activities in daily life. As the development of technology lowers the medical barriers, more simple and convenient tests will be developed to accurately predict diseases and change patients’ behavior.

For Mediwhale, the way to take retina scans will be revolutionized. It used to be only a tabletop camera deployed in the ophthalmologist’s office. Now, we see more handheld fundus cameras nearby and there will be more mediums including VR cameras, kiosks, or even smartphones in the future. People will be able to take retina images wherever and whenever even at home, and this will bring Mediwhale a great opportunity to expand the patient pool and make them healthy. The development of digital solutions that change patients’ behavior will help them to keep healthy lives and self-prevent any possible diseases.