Research-led Cork start-up CergenX is putting a vast databank of baby brainwaves to good work using the AI that underpins tech like Siri and Alexa.
According to Jason Mowles, around five in every 1,000 newborn babies have some form of brain abnormality at birth, and many of these go undetected. “It is simply not possible to test all newborns,” said Mowles. “However, many present at a later date with developmental challenges.”
Research indicates that early detection of brain injury would improve long-term outcomes, as the sooner treatments or interventions are introduced, the better. And research is at the core of Mowles’ start-up, CergenX, which sets out to make testing of all newborns not only possible, but effective at evaluating brain health at this early stage of life.
Driving the research behind the start-up is co-founder Geraldine Boylan, professor of neonatal physiology at University College Cork (UCC) and co-founder and director of the Infant research centre. Research overseen by Boylan at Infant has been vital to the creation of CergenX.
“The Infant centre has been at the forefront of research into the brainwaves of neonates, which are significantly different to child and adult brain waves,” Mowles explained. “Critically, the Infant centre had the foresight to start collecting data decades before anyone thought there would be any use for the data.”
This “large baby brainwave databank” can now be put to use thanks to the more recent availability of advanced AI frameworks developed for completely different purposes.
“Many of the AI techniques which have been developed for audio processing are also applicable to the processing of other signals such as those generated by human brains,” explained Mowles. “What this means is that the development of AI technologies that underpin services such as Siri and Alexa allows major advancements in other areas that also process signals of different types.”
And so, using AI frameworks built to enable our smart assistants, CergenX will be able to assist clinicians in the monitoring and detection of infant brain health at scale.
‘The Infant centre had the foresight to start collecting data decades before anyone thought there would be any use for it’
– JASON MOWLES
Boylan brings the expert knowledge to the team as chief scientific officer. She has worked in neurophysiology research for almost 30 years and her main focus is newborn brain research.
Mowles, CEO of CergenX, comes with 20 years’ experience in banking, which saw him taking the lead on digital transformation and change management.
The third co-founder completing the trio is Sean Griffin, who has been working in software development for more than 36 years. He was previously CTO at Poppulo, an Irish software business that merged with US firm Four Winds last year. Griffin now holds the CTO post at CergenX, which spun out of UCC in 2021.
CergenX started 2022 with an €800,000 seed funding round and recently completed a recruitment drive to grow the team. This has expanded the company’s expertise across newborn neuroscience, AI, commercialisation, software development, finance, funding and regulation.
“We are making strong progress on product development and expect to have a minimum viable product completed by the end of the year,” said Mowles. “In addition, several manufacturers have expressed interest in incorporating our software into their devices and we are actively exploring some exciting opportunities.”
When it comes to finding the right hardware partner for the infant brain screening device, Mowles said a primary focus will be finding one which has a sustainability programme in place.
‘Our ambition is to make newborn brain screening a standard of care for all babies at birth’
– JASON MOWLES
Meanwhile, CergenX will continue to develop the software, which starts with the hard slog of labelling and pre-processing reams of neonatal EEG data to feed into the various algorithms. And even as this is going on, Mowles is thinking ahead to the end user.
“The device will have a very simple user interface where the results can be easily interpreted,” he said. “For example, a traffic light system where red means refer the baby to a physician for further investigation and/or analysis.”
The initial target market for CergenX is the US and Europe, where about 9m babies are born each year. But, ultimately, the goal is to provide screening for all the world’s babies – some 140m born annually.
“Over time, our ambition is to make newborn brain screening a standard of care for all babies at birth,” said Mowles.
Supporting CergenX on this ambitious journey is Enterprise Ireland, Cork BIC and the spin-out team at UCC.
Enterprise Ireland has identified CergenX as a high-potential start-up (HPSU) and Donnchadh Cullinan, head of ICT HPSUs at the State agency, said this Cork start-up could have a real impact on the infants and families around the world. “The leadership team at CergenX are an excellent example of Ireland’s rich collaborative ecosystem at work,” he said.
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