Hopkins-based Startup Brings Cancer Diagnostics to the Cloud

By Nehal Aggarwal
Cancer has become so prolific in the past few decades that it’s almost commonplace. Yet, despite the prevalence of this disease, attempts at improving the efficiency of cancer diagnoses have been largely unsuccessful — that is until 22-year-old biomedical engineering student David West created Proscia, a digital health company that uses cloud computing to help pathologists diagnose biopsies.

West, who is currently a junior at Johns Hopkins University (JHU), was affected by cancer at a young age: his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when he was in elementary school. She was in treatment for a year, and though she survived and recovered, West wanted to help others with similar a similar diagnosis. In October of 2013, at the age of 20, he began work on the project that would become Proscia.

West said, “Scia in Latin means knowledge or knowing. Originally the name [for the company] was Noscia, like the diagnosis, but we wanted it to sound more positive, so we changed the name to Proscia.”

The Proscia platform works to solve two major problems within cancer diagnosis: storing the massive biopsy images and providing more accurate and quantifiable diagnostic information through the use of complex algorithms.

Typically, after a doctor orders a biopsy of a patient, the collected tissue gets sent to a lab, which prepares slides and examines those slides under a microscope. These days, as medical records are going digital, labs are scanning the slides and uploading them to hospital computer systems so they can examine them more closely and share them with colleagues. The only problem with this is that these image files are enormous, and the size tends to slow down the process. To counter this problem, the team at Proscia has developed a cloud-based system that will allow doctors to store biopsy images in the cloud, rather than on their own hard drives. The cloud system, which is designed to keep patients’ medical records private and secure, easily connects to any number of programs hospitals already have.

The project also aims to use computer algorithms to make diagnoses more accurate. While most pathologists assess biopsy scans by sight, they can be inconsistent and they can miss things. The algorithms that Proscia team members have developed are capable of catching small inconsistencies in an image that are easy to miss.

David West, Proscia’s founder and CEO said, “I started this company because I’ve always been really interested in cancer. It’s always been a company that’s focused on cancer — that’s the underlying drive for it.”

West teamed up with researchers at JHU, including some of his fellow students, and research advisors from the Johns Hopkins Medical Campus to get Proscia where it is today. While non-JHU affiliates have also assisted with the project, about half of the core team is comprised of people who are or were JHU undergraduates.

West said, “What started as simply a project became a project with good results and we recognized some big market opportunities. And then we started to build a platform that would capitalize on those market opportunities. We grew to something that was a commercial platform. Our vision was huge.”

All of Proscia’s team members are accomplished young men. They range in age from current high school students to recent college graduates. The one thing they all have in common is their dedication to the Proscia — some team members have even taken hiatuses from their studies to work on expanding the company.

West said, “We had no recruiting process, no HR. There’s nothing fancy about it. We had to accomplish a goal and we wanted to find the best people.”

The first person West asked to join the team was his best friend from childhood, Coleman Stavish. He is currently studying Computer Science at the University of Pittsburgh. In May of 2014, West reached out to Stavish about a project, now known as Proscia, he had been developing since October of the previous year. Stavish, who has been programming since high school, has always been skeptical about the commitment of those who solicit him on projects. However, he had no such reservations about West and Proscia.

Stavish said, “I was drawn towards the exciting problems Proscia set out to solve, namely subjectivity in cancer diagnosis and inefficiencies in modern pathology workflows. But perhaps more importantly, David being at the helm was what sealed the deal.”

Stavish is now the CTO for Proscia. As CTO, he is responsible for defining product specifications and development goals, and making sure that everyone is working together effectively to meet those goals. He also writes code and works with the people that produce the software.

Stavish said, “As the company grows, I may find myself doing more managing than programming. That would require a bit of getting used to on my part, but it would also mean the company is growing and becoming more mature.”

Nathan Buchbinder, who graduated from JHU in May with a biomedical engineering degree, is also a co-founder of Proscia. As the director of research, Buchbinder is responsible for Proscia’s clinical fact-finding. He looks for where in the clinical workflow Proscia’s products could fit in, as well as how the needs of a hospital setting could be met. He joined Proscia because he knew he wanted to be involved in health care and liked working with medical devices. He now is working to find out how Proscia’s products can be improved, along with his other responsibilities as director of research.

Buchbinder said, “It seemed like this [Proscia] was a good idea. I was struck by how little was out there and how open the space was for a new company like this.”

Max Yeo is Proscia’s user interface and user experience engineer. Yeo was looking to improve and build upon skills he was learning in his computer science classes at JHU. His role in the company is to manage the graphic design of the platform. In other words, he codes what customers see when they interact with the program.

Yeo said, “I develop a huge chunk of the front base code. I don’t touch the actual data mining, but I work heavily in what the customer sees when they upload and view images. Ninety percent of my time with Proscia is thinking about what this interface would look like, coding it and creating it.”

One by one, the Proscia team expanded into nine undergraduate members, each with a unique skillset and investment in Proscia’s mission. Most every member of the team has had notable accomplishments prior to working on Proscia.

Peeyush Shrivastava, the team’s chief strategy organizer, and Ohio State University graduate, was a finalist for the Thiel Fellowship, one of the nation’s most competitive awards for aspiring entrepreneurs.

Hunter Jackson, Proscia’s data scientist and lead mathematician, was 2013 Undergraduate Researcher of the Year at the Moffitt Center for his work modeling cancer cells. Jackson also graduated from the University of South Florida in only two years, and while he plans on pursuing a Ph.D. in Mathematics, he is currently postponing his studies to work at Proscia full-time.

Proscia’s lead technical consultant, Sinan Ozdemir, graduated from JHU last spring, and is currently a lecturer in data science at the university. He has published work with Homeland Security and created financial algorithms that Goldman Sachs, a prominent investment banking company, is currently testing.

Many members of the team are currently full time, and others work remotely from home.

West said, “I’m one of the people that’s actually not full-time. I’m transitioning into that, and obviously I will be this summer, but I want to finish school. Right now I’m a junior, hoping to graduate a semester early. I would consider dropping out if the company really took off.”

What started out as a small, independent project funded by West’s father has become a large company with many angel investors. Angel investors, or individuals who provide capital for start-up companies and entrepreneurs, typically invest anywhere from $50,000-$100,000 in small companies. Proscia has garnered many angel investors.

The rapid expansion of the company begs the question of whether they will be expanding their platform to research beyond cancer.

Buchbinder said, “As we build our analytics platform, we get bigger and better at building it for other diseases.”

Buchbinder is currently looking for other target cancers and diseases that are good for use with future analytics platforms. He is also communicating with potential partners who are working in companies geared towards a similar concept and who could benefit from Proscia’s technology. For the most part, these companies work with software that scans biopsies.

A trial version of the Proscia platform is currently being used by 14 hospitals, most of which are affiliated with universities. As Proscia continues to grow and expand, one can only wonder what the company will achieve in the future. How will it affect pathological findings in terms of cancer and other diseases, and how it will continue to build on research to better diagnose these diseases?

Only time will tell.

An earlier version of this article included some errors. It has since been updated.