Rockstart alumnus Deepdee’s journey: from a passion for eye care to successful startup
From conception to implementation
Every product begins with an idea, but the journey of developing that idea into a concrete, helpful, and practical business is often the most rewarding part of the startup process. Not too long ago, Deepdee was that grain of an idea. After developing it as best they could in their native Belarus, founders Jaroslav Likhachevskiy, Alexei Kuzmenkov, and Olga Likhachevskaya decided it was time their idea needed a different kind of nourishment, and they applied for the Rockstart Digital Health program.
What began as a passion project soon developed into a fully functioning startup, complete with partners, clients, and funding. Deepdee is the kind of revolutionary solution that flourishes in a Rockstart accelerator thanks in part to its use of emerging tech, but primarily due to the problem it aims to solve. Their business uses artificial intelligence to help ophthalmologists diagnose early-stage eye diseases by processing fundus images. They cover the three most common diseases, including diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma, and age-related macular degeneration. By providing eye doctors with the tools to better diagnose their patients, Deepdee’s grain of an idea has grown to make a positive impact on real lives. They had a vision, and it was to help others see.
We sat down with Deepdee CEO Jaroslav Likhachevskiy to talk about their time in the program, the company’s growth process, and what he hopes to see in Deepdee’s future. An integral step for any new business starting out is figuring out where their product belongs and if there’s space in the market for them. Likhachevskiy approached this from a unique angle, a viewpoint he imparts to his professional and educational history, explaining, “From my software engineering background, I think this is common for all the engineers: we build first and then we start thinking about what can we do.” The answer to what they could do took the form of what he believes is a necessary move for any business looking to make an impact. He continues, “And, definitely, my first advice would be quite obvious: get out of the building, get out of Belarus, get to the place where your market is and start talking to stakeholders, make problem validation, make problem-solution fit. Those should be the very first steps when you start building a company. In that way, Rockstart could be quite a good opportunity.”
Breaking into the Dutch market
Throughout their six months in the Digital Health program, Deepdee took part in over 25 workshops, were challenged to improve their product and harness their focus, and they were provided with €20,000 of equity funding. Though these program benefits helped Deepdee prosper, it was the network and access which Rockstart provided that proved to be the most beneficial takeaway from the program. Likhachevskiy admitted, “As Rockstart was the only entry point across the Netherlands, I’d say that probably all the network we have in the Netherlands—every one we’ve met and had support from—was built with Rockstart, that’s for sure.” Deepdee was introduced to a network of healthcare organizations, medical partners, experienced business mentors, and investors with deep pockets. It was through this network that Deepdee was introduced to its most rewarding contact to date: The Rotterdam Eye Institute.
Making connections to propel the product
Through the Rotterdam Eye Institute, Deepdee was given direct access to not only their target market and data sets but also to renowned specialists in their field. Likhachevskiy expands, “The main thing we get from them is an opportunity to work with professor Hans Lemij who is the key opinion leader in glaucoma in Europe and, I believe, all around the world. That’s the pure gold—to work with the best specialists. They bring lots of scientific partners into this collaboration and also visibility and credibility for us.” Dr. Lemij was able to provide Likhachevskiy and his colleagues with key insights into the ophthalmology industry from a doctor’s perspective which—along with the patient’s perspective—is one of the two most important vantage points when developing an effective healthcare product. This insider knowledge translated into an enhanced outlook into what their product needed to solve and how.
On the necessity of gaining professionals’ input on their product, Likhachevskiy reveals, “It’s essential to connect with hospitals because, on the one hand, no development is possible without scientific expertise. And, on the other hand, AI is still a quite new technology and it doesn’t have enough trust in the medical society, so it’s extremely important to have key opinion leaders on our side who act as ambassadors in order to show their colleagues that this technology is credible and it can be used to improve the lives of patients and workflow of professionals.” With Dr. Lemij’s direct input and guidance, Deepdee has been able to curate their product to precise specifications and live up to the standards of leading medical professionals.
The hurdles in healthcare
The healthcare industry is a notoriously scrupulous industry. Due to the nature of the work, it would make sense that there are countless loopholes to jump through and hierarchical levels to surpass. In healthcare, lives are at stake. However, unfortunately, the raised stakes also make it more difficult to help. “The problems are well-known, global and common,” says Likhachevskiy. “The population is aging, there are more chronic diseases, hospitals are overloaded and the hospital healthcare system we have now had to become more optimal, more efficient. That’s what everyone is trying to solve.” Since Deepdee decided to focus on a more niche subject within healthcare, they’ve run into additional obstacles. “We are working in eye-care and we know that to get to an ophthalmologist or an eye-specialist it takes quite long and it costs quite a lot, which makes current healthcare not that efficient. So what did we do? We built an automated AI system for screening and diagnosing eye-diseases which helps prioritize patients on the first line of care.”
Over the previous six months, DeepDee has received funds of roughly €300,000, opened an RnD office in Belarus with a staff of 25—including doctors and programmers—and are beginning pilot projects in the Netherlands, Poland, Argentina, Rwanda, and their native Belarus. With their short-term sights on clinical validation and certification, Deepdee is planning on continuing their growth within the European market—where they’ve already won a number of accolades, including the Social Innovation Award 2018 by Bayer and Emerging Europe Awards in June 2018—they expect to eventually make their way across the Atlantic to further develop in the US. But after having built one of the most accurate algorithms in the world for retinal diseases diagnosis, they’re feeling confident that they’re on the right track, especially with a network of experienced, helpful contacts at their side. Healthcare may be a slow industry to disrupt, but with the right network, Deepdee is ready to make a difference.
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