Tech Talk with Ralph Highnam

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May 22, 2018

The CEO of New Zealand-based digital health startup Volpara Health Technologies has developed cloud-based software that helps detect breast cancer. By Alison Boleyn.  

How did you become interested in breast-cancer screening?

I was doing my PhD at the University of Oxford and was very good at maths and computing but lacked direction. I went to see Professor Mike Brady, who’d been headhunted to bring artificial intelligence [AI] to Oxford. His mother-in-law had died of breast cancer and we got talking about how breast-cancer screening saves lives but needed technology to optimise it. To me, there was this awesome opportunity to use my maths and computing skills to do good for the world.

What technology did you develop to assist in screening?

The key thing was working out what the breast consists of and how to measure it reliably. We used computer vision techniques from AI [to help robots automatically extract and analyse information from images] to look at X-rays and work out what was present. We came up with the first way of automatically measuring breast density, which is now widely accepted to be a very important risk factor for breast cancer.

Some studies have suggested a skilled clinician’s visual assessment is as accurate as Volpara software’s readings…

Radiologists are amazing at detecting cancers in breasts but their judgement of things such as breast density can be subjective. Our software sets out to support their judgement; it helps to standardise how they read breast density.

What else are you working on at the moment?

We have expanded to measure radiation dose – we help monitor it and make sure it remains small – and breast compression during a mammogram, with a view to making it as light as possible.

You came to biotech from mathematics. What would you say to young people considering maths as a career path?

Maths gave me the skills to do civil engineering or aeronautical engineering; I could have gone into computing or AI or accounting. Maths gives deep, core skills that also help you understand many of the things in life around you. 

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