Peer Medical has a big mission. After his father died of lung cancer, serial entrepreneur Ed Spiegel vowed to create a better way for lung cancer patients to deal with their disease. The startup has so far raised a $1.2M seed funding round for its ground-breaking approach and is onboarding patients at a rate of knots.
Peer Medical allows lung cancer patients to anonymously share their treatments with each other. This helps survivors find others like them and see which treatments and procedures work best. Users can search by biomarker, stage, age, or gender and review verified treatments and journeys of similar patients.
The funding round was led by Amsterdam-based ‘Partners in Equity’ (PiE), best known for investing seed capital into Adyen the Dutch payments unicorn; and London’s Seedcamp, alongside Angel investors. Peer Medical is now able to sign up patients’ electronic health records inside a minute. Its advisers include Dr. David Jablons, Head of Thoracic Oncology at UCSF, and Dr. Geoffrey Ginsburg, Head of Applied Genomics and Precision Medicine at Duke University .
Spiegel’s RentMineOnline was one of the first-ever ‘share economy’ startups to appear 10 years ago, and also Seedcamp’s first investment, and its first exit.
Indeed, the idea for Peer Medical came to Spiegel 10 years ago as the sole care-giver during his father’s three-year battle with lung cancer.
Spiegal told me he came up with the idea after meeting a buddy of his from his college who had also seen his father pass away from lung cancer. Comparing notes, Spiegal realized he could have had so much more information if they’ve been able to share treatment information.
“It’s like: ‘God I wish I would have known that back then!’. It’s just such a terrible experience. Unfortunately for me, I lived the experience, but I could have really used a sort of ‘electronic caregiver’ essentially to help my Dad through it.”
Participating in online forums, Spiegel found patients willing to help but realized the need for a centralized, searchable database that contained the knowledge these people possessed. There were over 1.7 million new cancer cases diagnosed in the US last year alone. The information for the patients is often disorganized, incomplete, or out of date. Medical record portability is growing in adoption and will be crucial in aiding treatments.
“It’s a little like you as a driver using Waze to crowdsource information from other drivers to get to the perfect route because you’re learning from all the other people,” commented Spiegal. “The future is certainly electronic health records, although it’s still kind of like using a credit card in 1999 online, it’s coming in a big way. You will have your records, and wonder ‘who else is just like me?’”
There are already big players making it happen such as Apple Health, and online hospital portal growth driven by companies like Epic and Cerner.
Peer Medical doesn’t really have ‘competitors’ in the traditional sense, other than Facebook support groups for patients, which are not anonymous and chaotic, and Google searches. PatientsLikeMe, founded in the early 2000s, doesn’t leverage the medical records aspect and sold in 2019 to United Health Care for 2017 after raising $100M.
Commenting, Reshma Sohoni, co-founder of Seedcamp said: “Ed was a part of Seedcamp’s first cohort of companies and returned our first successful exit. We’re thrilled to back Ed and his team for a second time and bring what we hope will be another successful venture to our portfolio. Unfortunately, I’ve also lost a parent to cancer and can relate to how important a tool like this can be to navigate such difficult times. We really like that the patient retains anonymity but is still able to learn from others.”
Carlos Eduardo Espinal, Seedcamp Managing Partner added: “At Seedcamp, this is exactly the type of community that we like to invest in. People, in this case, patients and caregivers, bound together by a common goal to fight cancer. We’re thrilled to help Ed and the Peer Medical team build this community that pools verified and anonymized medical records and uses them to optimize individual treatment paths.”
RentMineOnline, which did referrals for apartments on Facebook, was successfully sold to a publicly-traded property management software firm, Real Page (NASDAQ: RP).
America’s technology industry, radiating brilliance and profitability from its Silicon Valley home base, was until recently a shining beacon of what made America great: Science, progress, entrepreneurship. But public opinion has swung against big tech amazingly fast and far; negative views doubled between 2015 and 2019 from 17% to 34%. The list of concerns is long and includes privacy, treatment of workers, marketplace fairness, the carnage among ad-supported publications and the poisoning of public discourse.
But there’s one big issue behind all of these: An industry ravenous for growth, profit and power, that has failed at treating its employees, its customers and the inhabitants of society at large as human beings. Bear in mind that products, companies and ecosystems are built by people, for people. They reflect the values of the society around them, and right now, America’s values are in a troubled state.
We both have a lot of respect and affection for the United States, birthplace of the microprocessor and the electric guitar. We could have pursued our tech careers there, but we’ve declined repeated invitations and chosen to stay at home here in Canada . If you want to build technology to be harnessed for equity, diversity and social advancement of the many, rather than freedom and inclusion for the few, we think Canada is a good place to do it.
U.S. big tech is correctly seen as having too much money, too much power and too little accountability. Those at the top clearly see the best effects of their innovations, but rarely the social costs. They make great things — but they also disrupt lives, invade privacy and abuse their platforms.
We both came of age at a time when tech aspired to something better, and so did some of today’s tech giants. Four big tech CEOs recently testified in front of Congress. They were grilled about alleged antitrust abuses, although many of us watching were thinking about other ills associated with some of these companies: tax avoidance, privacy breaches, data mining, surveillance, censorship, the spread of false news, toxic byproducts, disregard for employee welfare.
But the industry’s problem isn’t really the products themselves — or the people who build them. Tech workers tend to be dramatically more progressive than the companies they work for, as Facebook staff showed in their recent walkout over President Donald Trump’s posts.
Big tech’s problem is that it amplifies the issues Americans are struggling with more broadly. That includes economic polarization, which is echoed in big-tech financial statements, and the race politics that prevent tech (among other industries) from being more inclusive to minorities and talented immigrants.
We’re particularly struck by the Trump administration’s recent moves to deny opportunities to H-1B visa holders. Coming after several years of family separations, visa bans and anti-immigrant rhetoric, it seems almost calculated to send IT experts, engineers, programmers, researchers, doctors, entrepreneurs and future leaders from around the world — the kind of talented newcomers who built America’s current prosperity — fleeing to more receptive shores.
One of those shores is Canada’s; that’s where we live and work. Our country has long courted immigration, but it’s turned around its longstanding brain-drain problem in recent years with policies designed to scoop up talented people who feel uncomfortable or unwanted in America. We have an immigration program, the Global Talent Stream, that helps innovative companies fast-track foreign workers with specialized skills. Cities like Toronto, Montreal, Waterloo and Vancouver have been leading North America in tech job creation during the Trump years, fuelled by outposts of the big international tech companies but also by scaled-up domestic firms that do things the Canadian way, such as enterprise software developer OpenText (one of us is a co-founder) and e-commerce giant Shopify.
But it’s not just about policy; it’s about underlying values. Canada is exceptionally comfortable with diversity, in theory (as expressed in immigration policy) and practice (just walk down a street in Vancouver or Toronto). We’re not perfect, but we have been competently led and reasonably successful in recognizing the issues we need to deal with. And our social contract is more cooperative and inclusive.
Yes, that means public health care with no copays, but it also means more emphasis on sustainability, corporate responsibility and a more collaborative strain of capitalism. Our federal and provincial governments have mostly been applauded for their gusher of stimulative wage subsidies and grants meant to sustain small businesses and tech talent during the pandemic, whereas Washington’s response now appears to have been formulated in part to funnel public money to elites.
American big tech today feels morally adrift, which leads to losing out on talented people who want to live the values Silicon Valley used to stand for — not just wealth, freedom and the few, but inclusivity, diversity and the many. Canada is just one alternative to the U.S. model, but it’s the alternative we know best and the one just across the border, with loads of technology job openings.
It wouldn’t surprise us if more tech refugees find themselves voting with their feet.
Swiss keyboard startup Typewise has bagged a $1 million seed round to build out a typo-busting, ‘privacy-safe’ next word prediction engine designed to run entirely offline. No cloud connectivity, no data mining risk is the basic idea.
They also intend the tech to work on text inputs made on any device, be it a smartphone or desktop, a wearable, VR — or something weirder that Elon Musk might want to plug into your brain in future.
For now they’ve got a smartphone keyboard app that’s had around 250,000 downloads — with some 65,000 active users at this point.
The seed funding breaks down into $700K from more than a dozen local business angels; and $340K via the Swiss government through a mechanism (called “Innosuisse projects“), akin to a research grant, which is paying for the startup to employ machine learning experts at Zurich’s ETH research university to build out the core AI.
The team soft launched a smartphone keyboard app late last year, which includes some additional tweaks (such as an optional honeycomb layout they tout as more efficient; and the ability to edit next word predictions so the keyboard quickly groks your slang) to get users to start feeding in data to build out their AI.
Their main focus is on developing an offline next word prediction engine which could be licensed for use anywhere users are texting, not just on a mobile device.
“The goal is to develop a world-leading text prediction engine that runs completely on-device,” says co-founder David Eberle. “The smartphone keyboard really is a first use case. It’s great to test and develop our algorithms in a real-life setting with tens of thousands of users. The larger play is to bring word/sentence completion to any application that involves text entry, on mobiles or desktop (or in future also wearables/VR/Brain-Computer Interfaces).
“Currently it’s pretty much only Google working on this (see Gmail’s auto completion feature). Applications such as Microsoft Teams, Slack, Telegram, or even SAP, Oracle, Salesforce would want such productivity increase – and at that level privacy/data security matters a lot. Ultimately we envision that every “human-machine interface” is, at least on the text-input level, powered by Typewise.”
You’d be forgiven for thinking all this sounds a bit retro, given the earlier boom in smartphone AI keyboards — such as SwiftKey (now owned by Microsoft).
The founders have also pushed specific elements of their current keyboard app — such as the distinctive honeycomb layout — before, going down a crowdfunding route back in 2015, when they were calling the concept Wrio. But they reckon it’s now time to go all in — hence relaunching the business as Typewise and shooting to build a licensing business for offline next word prediction.
“We’ll use the funds to develop advanced text predictions… first launching it in the keyboard app and then bringing it to the desktop to start building partnerships with relevant software vendors,” says Eberle, noting they’re working on various enhancements to the keyboard app and also plan to spend on marketing to try to hit 1M active users next year.
“We have more ‘innovative stuff’ [incoming] on the UX side as well, e.g. interacting with auto correction (so the user can easily intervene when it does something wrong — in many countries users just turn it off on all keyboards because it gets annoying), gamifying the general typing experience (big opportunity for kids/teenagers, also making them more aware of what and how they type), etc.”
The competitive landscape around smartphone keyboard tech, largely dominated by tech giants, has left room for indie plays, is the thinking. Nor is Typewise the only startup thinking that way (Fleksy has similar ambitions, for one). However gaining traction vs such giants — and over long established typing methods — is the tricky bit.
Android maker Google has ploughed resource into its Gboard AI keyboard — larding it with features. While, on iOS, Apple’s interface for switching to a third party keyboard is infamously frustrating and finicky; the opposite of a seamless experience. Plus the native keyboard offers next word prediction baked in — and Apple has plenty of privacy credit. So why would a user bother switching is the problem there.
Competing for smartphone users’ fingers as an indie certainly isn’t easy. Alternative keyboard layouts and input mechanism are always a very tough sell as they disrupt people’s muscle memory and hit mobile users hard in their comfort and productivity zone. Unless the user is patient and/or stubborn enough to stick with a frustratingly different experience they’ll soon ditch for the keyboard devil they know. (‘Qwerty’ is an ancient typewriter layout turned typing habit we English speakers just can’t kick.)
Given all that, Typewise’s retooled focus on offline next word prediction to do white label b2b licensing makes more sense — assuming they can pull off the core tech.
And, again, they’re competing at a data disadvantage on that front vs more established tech giant keyboard players, even as they argue that’s also a market opportunity.
“Google and Microsoft (thanks to the acquisition of SwiftKey) have a solid technology in place and have started to offer text predictions outside of the keyboard; many of their competitors, however, will want to embed a proprietary (difficult to build) or independent technology, especially if their value proposition is focused on privacy/confidentiality,” Eberle argues.
“Would Telegram want to use Google’s text predictions? Would SAP want that their clients’ data goes through Microsoft’s prediction algorithms? That’s where we see our right to win: world-class text predictions that run on-device (privacy) and are made in Switzerland (independent environment, no security back doors, etc).”
Early impressions of Typewise’s next word prediction smarts (gleaned by via checking out its iOS app) are pretty low key (ha!). But it’s v1 of the AI — and Eberle talks bullishly of having “world class” developers working on it.
“The collaboration with ETH just started a few weeks ago and thus there are no significant improvements yet visible in the live app,” he tells TechCrunch. “As the collaboration runs until the end of 2021 (with the opportunity of extension) the vast majority of innovation is still to come.”
He also tells us Typewise is working with ETH’s Prof. Thomas Hofmann (chair of the Data Analytic Lab, formerly at Google), as well as having has two PhDs in NLP/ML and one MSc in ML contributing to the effort.
“We get exclusive rights to the [ETH] technology; they don’t hold equity but they get paid by the Swiss government on our behalf,” Eberle also notes.
Typewise says its smartphone app supports more than 35 languages. But its next word prediction AI can only handle English, German, French, Italian and Spanish at this point. The startup says more are being added.
It’s not often Silicon Valley gets behind a single cause. Supporting net neutrality was one, reforming government surveillance another. Last week, Big Tech took up its latest: halting any cooperation with Hong Kong police.
Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, and even China-headquartered TikTok said last week they would no longer respond to demands for user data from Hong Kong law enforcement — read: Chinese authorities — citing the new unilaterally imposed Beijing national security law. Critics say the law, ratified on June 30, effectively kills China’s “one country, two systems” policy allowing Hong Kong to maintain its freedoms and some autonomy after the British handed over control of the city-state back to Beijing in 1997.
Noticeably absent from the list of tech giants pulling cooperation was Apple, which said it was still “assessing the new law.” What’s left to assess remains unclear, given the new powers explicitly allow warrantless searches of data, intercept and restrict internet data, and censor information online, things that Apple has historically opposed if not in so many words.
Facebook, Google and Twitter can live without China. They already do — both Facebook and Twitter are banned on the mainland, and Google pulled out after it accused Beijing of cyberattacks. But Apple cannot. China is at the heart of its iPhone and Mac manufacturing pipeline, and accounts for over 16% of its revenue — some $9 billion last quarter alone. Pulling out of China would be catastrophic for Apple’s finances and market position.
The move by Silicon Valley to cut off Hong Kong authorities from their vast pools of data may be a largely symbolic move, given any overseas data demands are first screened by the Justice Department in a laborious and frequently lengthy legal process. But by holding out, Apple is also sending its own message: Its ardent commitment to human rights — privacy and free speech — stops at the border of Hong Kong.
Here’s what else is in this week’s Decrypted.