Stimul.ai: Health-tech start-up with an AI cure for hospital waiting lists

4 Oct 2021

Stimul.ai founders Naomh McElhatton and Prof Barry O’Sullivan. Image: Stimul.ai

Cork start-up Stimul.ai is leveraging Ireland’s greatest AI expertise to find a solution for a worsening healthcare problem.

“Time is something we cannot get back and it should not be taken for granted,” said entrepreneur Naomh McElhatton, explaining why her start-up Stimul.ai is creating AI-led tech to tackle time management in healthcare systems.

Specifically, Stimul.ai is aiming to reduce the time patients spend on hospital waiting lists. Ireland’s hospital waiting list numbers reached a record approaching 1m this year, as a pre-existing problem has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and a cyberattack on the Health Service Executive.

In the UK, a recent report warned that up to 14m people could be on NHS waiting lists in England by next autumn, while in McElhatton’s native Northern Ireland, some patients are waiting up to seven years for a medical procedure.

“You don’t need me to tell you the dire crisis we are experiencing here in Ireland and in the UK when it comes to hospital waiting list times,” she said. “It was critical enough before Covid. But now as we embrace recovery planning – where in most cases capacity and resources are limited – we have created something that clinics can use to make better capacity planning decisions.”

‘Our solution will never worsen a clinic’s waiting time’
– NAOMH MCELHATTON

In a nutshell, Stimul.ai is an artificial intelligence strategic planning tool that can help hospitals reduce their waiting lists. It does this by automating what McElhatton described as “typically laborious processes” and allocates times matched to patient category requirements without interrupting daily practice.

“Currently no such technology solution exists to tackle this huge crisis, which costs the economy billions of euros per year. Pressure is growing on the government to take urgent steps to tackle waiting times and Stimul.ai is here to support however possible,” she said.

Stimul.ai operates via an on-demand cloud-based SaaS platform, but McElhatton doesn’t wish for it to be confused with existing technology for time management in hospitals. “We are not a rostering [or] scheduling tool,” she emphasised. “We are very much a strategic planning tool.”

Stimul.ai uses scenario modelling to deliver evidence-based data intelligence. According to McElhatton, it’s a no-risk option for clinicians. “Our solution will never worsen a clinic’s waiting time,” she claimed.

She and her team can help healthcare providers to identify the right data sources to feed into Stimul.ai. The system can then use historical data to predict future demand. And by modelling what’s needed to keep pace with this demand, clinicians using Stimul.ai can plan their day based on these requirements, resources and available capacity.

‘We are passionate about building healthcare innovation that disrupts the industry and dramatically improves patient care’
– NAOMH MCELHATTON

While the company was founded only this year, Stimul.ai is built on more than a decade of AI and decision analytics research at the Insight Centre for Data Analytics and the School of Computer Science and IT at University College Cork.

“A lot of hard work has already been completed to date behind the scenes,” said McElhatton. “We have had lots of development conversations as to how we take those findings and make the tool as impactful as possible.”

McElhatton founded the company with none other than Prof Barry O’Sullivan, the founding director of Insight and one of Europe’s leading experts in AI. O’Sullivan suitably takes the role of chief AI officer, while McElhatton leads as CEO.

She herself is an experienced entrepreneur, having started a number of businesses and networks in her years working in tech and digital marketing. Now turning her hand to health-tech, McElhatton approaches the work with the desire to make a real impact.

“At Stimul.ai, we are passionate about building healthcare innovation that disrupts the industry and dramatically improves patient care and experience,” she said. “Through our findings and automated process we allow consultants and their team to focus on delivering patient care, which is always the number-one priority.”

‘No one in this day and age should be waiting for medical treatment’
– NAOMH MCELHATTON

At the time of its official launch this summer, Stimul.ai was already engaged with a number of hospital departments throughout Ireland and the UK and eager to identify new pilot sites.

“The pace is picking up,” said the CEO. “We have a number of pilots in England and Northern Ireland and are in discussions with both the Canadian and Australian markets.”

Work for Stimul.ai in the Republic of Ireland was disrupted by the HSE cyberattack but McElhatton expects to be back on track soon. “The beauty of Stimul.ai is that it is a global product and can be utilised anywhere in the world,” she said.

As well as extending partnerships, Stimul.ai is looking to attract investment and is currently in conversations with potential seed funders.

“It’s a bit of a cart before the horse scenario,” said McElhatton. “We will be a much more attractive proposition once we can present the findings of our latest commercial pilots.”

And while McElhatton sticks to the adage that “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”, she is serving up something in which she can be confident. In hospital trials over the past few years, it is claimed that the technology has been proven to reduce waiting list times by 20pc to 80pc.

It has taken time for this project to find its legs, though, and McElhatton has had to adjust to the slow pace of innovation in healthcare.

“I forget that I am probably one of Earth’s most impatient people,” she said. “I have always worked in fast-paced sectors where the majority of decisions are made there and then. Working in the health and public sector are much more measured, for obvious reasons. For me this has been more of a personal challenge, rather than a start-up challenge.”

This brings us back to the time management problem-solving that Stimul.ai is tackling. If it proves successful in reducing waiting times for medical procedures, everyone wins from the patient to the practitioner to the broader economy. And it’s hard to argue with McElhatton’s raison d’être for the company: “No one in this day and age should be waiting for medical treatment and they certainly should not be sitting on waiting lists for years for simple procedures.”

For now, the immediate future for this Cork-headquartered start-up is facing into the finals of the InterTradeIreland Seedcorn competition, in which it has recently been named a Munster finalist.

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Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com