Optellum: An AI platform to detect lung cancer early on

5 Sep 2023

Co-founder Václav Potěšil. Image: Optellum

Founded by a team of experts from Oxford, Optellum is on track to becoming a market leader in the growing lung-cancer detection space.

Lung cancer is the one of the most common types of cancer in the world, and the leading cause of cancer-related deaths.

“Timely diagnosis is crucial as nearly 90pc of individuals diagnosed early can expect to survive the disease for at least five years,” says Václav Potěšil, co-founder of UK-based Optellum. “[This is] in stark contrast to a mere 5pc survival rate when diagnosed at the latest stage.”

Optellum is one of many fast-growing start-ups in Europe focusing on improving outcomes for lung cancer patients. Previous Start-ups of the Week in this space include Meta-Flux, which is helping pharma companies detect potential adverse drug reactions using AI, and Celtic Biotech, which is developing novel cancer treatments from snake venom.

‘Biggest unsolved problem in interventional oncology’

Based in Oxford, Optellum is an AI-powered health start-up that assists physicians to diagnose lung cancer in patients in its early stages. It taps into a lung cancer therapeutics market that, according to Precedence Research, is projected to reach $55.6bn by 2030.

“Early diagnosis and treatment of lung cancer with curative intent is the most rapidly growing segment of that market – truly the biggest unsolved problem and frontier in interventional oncology,” explains Potěšil, who is also Optellum’s chief business officer and board director.

To that end, Optellum has developed a lung cancer decision support software, called Virtual Node Clinic, which automatically identifies at-risk patients across the health system and calculates a clinically validated Lung Cancer Prediction (LCP) score.

The score, based on imaging AI, helps determine the probability of malignancy in identified lung nodules to kickstart treatment early without the need for invasive procedures such as biopsies on benign lesions.

Since its founding in 2015, Optellum technology has bagged approval on both sides of the pond, including from the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) in the US, the CE-MDR marking regulatory process in the EU, as well as in the UK and nearly 30 other countries.

Prior to founding Optellum, Potěšil launched novel medical robotics devices as the global product manager at Hocoma, a maker of neurorehabilitation exoskeletons based in Switzerland. However, his interest in lunger cancer goes further back.

“I became involved in computer vision research applied to lung cancer due to a personal connection to the disease – way before AI in healthcare became popular (and even ready for clinical use),” he says.

“My aunt found out she had lung cancer when she already had notable symptoms and it was too late to cure her. Having never smoked a cigarette in her life, she was diagnosed when the disease had already reached a late stage, a situation that’s all too common.”

‘Lightbulb moment’

As he went on to study for a PhD at the University of Oxford, this life experience informed his decision to focus his research on applying AI and computer vision to lung cancer. While at Oxford, he met his co-founders Lyndsey Pickup, Timor Kadir, Prof Mike Brady and Jérôme Declerck.

“During my studies, we have explored several business ideas with other friends, winning the Oxford student business idea competition twice, but always delayed starting a company,” Potěšil goes on.

“Being a keen mountaineer, the ‘lightbulb moment’ came during a high mountain expedition when I came close to dying in a tragic accident – realising life is too short to delay my dreams and ambitions further.

“Optellum was born two months later when my co-founders and I embarked on the mission to solve the biggest unsolved problem in oncology.”

Today, the start-up’s Virtual Nodule Clinic software is used across several big hospitals, including AtlantiCare in the US. Closer to home, the platform is being used in a multicentre study as part of a major NHS investment in AI, as well as in partnerships with GE HealthCare and Johnson & Johnson.

“We’ve also secured a strategic investment from the VC arm of Intuitive, the world leader in surgical robotics, after receiving Series A funding in 2022, and are making first steps extending the Optellum AI platform beyond diagnosis alone in order to guide optimal therapy decisions,” adds Potěšil.

Following its $14m Series A funding last year, he said Optellum is already receiving interest from potential investors for a Series B round. “The ultimate vision is to enable physicians to diagnose every patient with deadly diseases of the lungs as early as possible, treat them in the optimal way and help save lives.”

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic