The Innovators: MetaOptima Technology brings its skin cancer-fighting AI home

The company's co-founder and CEO Maryam Sadeghi has big plans for the future.

Credit: Adam Blasberg

MetaOptima co-founder and CEO Maryam Sadeghi

The company’s co-founder and CEO Maryam Sadeghi has big plans for the future

Our Innovators series highlights just a few of the trailblazing companies that are helping move this province—and the world—forward in challenging times

When federal Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains announced the first projects to be funded under the B.C.-based Canada’s Digital Technology Supercluster initiative last year, he chose as his venue not a blue-chip participant like Telus Corp., Providence Health Care or the BC Cancer Agency. Instead, he spoke from the Vancouver office of a small startup, MetaOptima Technology.

It was MetaOptima’s software platform, DermEngine, after all, that was a key enabling technology behind the Dermatology Point-of-Care Intelligent Network, a collaboration aimed at improving access to and the accuracy of skin cancer diagnoses. Integrated with tele-pathology imaging created by Change Healthcare, it uses artificial intelligence to help dermatologists remotely zero in on possible cases of melanoma at an early stage, when treatment has the best chance of success. If successful, the $9.8-million pilot project continuing in B.C. this year will be expanded to health regions across Canada, where skin cancer strikes 80,000 people annually.

“I really saw this as a test bed for Canadian implementation,” says MetaOptima’s co-founder and CEO, Maryam Sadeghi. Since the company’s founding in 2012, its technology has been used on more than a million patients worldwide, but until now MetaOptima has been frustrated getting its foot in the door of the monolithic Canadian health-care system. The Supercluster project has opened a channel of communication to Health Canada and created a template for joint ventures with both for-profit and clinical partners in this country, Sadeghi says.

DermEngine is actually MetaOptima’s second big innovation. The first was MoleScope, an attachment that can turn an ordinary smartphone into a medical imaging tool capable of spotting early-stage melanoma. The company has sold more than 70,000 units of the device, almost all of them outside Canada.

Between the two products, which are constantly being upgraded with new features, MetaOptima has the potential not just to save lives but to save the health-care system huge amounts of money. “Our GPs, from 100 cases that they refer [to dermatologists], 97 are benign,” Sadeghi says. “Hundreds of millions of dollars are wasted every year just in unnecessary procedures. We can cut 50 percent of this cost.”

Sadeghi herself came from a computer science background, not a medical one. It was while working on her PhD on a scholarship from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research at UBC that the Iranian-born AI specialist was introduced to the medical applications of the technology, especially in dermatology. She was surprised to find most of the records that made up her research material, including photos, were available only in paper. “That was the point I realized there was a big problem,” Sadeghi says. Fortunately, “I love solving real-life problems and serving patients and doctors.”