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Telehealth diagnostic tool wins pitch competition for Hopkins female inventors

Therese Canares is the founder of CurieDx. (Submitted Photo)

A company that aims to leverage artificial intelligence to diagnose conditions, like strep throat, won Johns Hopkins’ “Pitch It On!” competition on Tuesday. Now in its second year, the contest, which was held virtually, aims to highlight and provide funding for women-led ventures at Hopkins.

Led by Therese Canares, assistant professor of pediatric emergency medicine at Hopkins, CurieDx uses a library of photographs of patients’ throats — both those who tested positive for strep throat and those who did not — to assess whether a user has the illness or not.

The product aims to address a shortfall in telehealth services; they are usually not equipped to diagnose infections like strep throat virtually. Currently, any patient who report to a telehealth physician that they are experiencing a sore throat will most likely be asked to either go to the doctor for a test or will be told to buy over-the-counter medications to treat the suspected infection, Canares told listeners during the competition.

This can be problematic because strep throat medicines can cause unfortunate side effects, like diarrhea, when taken unnecessarily. More broadly, taking antibiotics when you don’t have to is wasteful and can cause more and more bacteria to become resistant to those medications.

“The value that we offer patients is convenience and a painless experience,” Canares said.

Currently, Canares and her team — including core teammates Mathias Unberath, an assistant professor at Hopkins’ Whiting School of Engineering, and Keith Rochkind — are working to improve the CurieDx algorithm and to build out the database of photographs. She plans to use the $10,000 prize from the competition to research and develop CurieDx’s platform and user interface.

“This is going to look like a lot of interviews with people who will be the end-users — patients and telehealth physicians. We want to make sure we get the user experience down just right,” she told The Daily Record. “This has to be something you can use seamlessly.”

The pitch competition originated last year as part of Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures’ AccelHERator program, a series of four events in 2020, funded by a Small Business Administration grant, that focused on supporting and uplifting women entrepreneurs and inventors at Hopkins.

Diversity among entrepreneurs and founders at Hopkins had long been a concern for JHTV, a division at Hopkins that works with researchers to translate their work into commercial applications, so the SBA grant seemed like the perfect opportunity to support the university’s women entrepreneurs, said Liz Burger, senior director of strategic initiatives at JHTV.

Now in its second year, the competition featured three female Hopkins professors, each of whom presented their company to an audience that later voted for the winner.

Burger said that the participants were chosen from a pool of applicants based on a number of criteria, including the commercial potential of the product.

“If something was scientifically interesting, but not as well formulated commercially, that doesn’t mean it’s not a great product, but it’s not the best showcase of what commercialization can do,” she said.

Canares is proud to have won a competition focused on women’s achievements, especially because she works closely with a number of young, female medical students and mentees, a number of whom even watched her present at the competition. Just after she won, she said, she received congratulatory texts from many of them.

“It is so exciting to be a voice and role model for them, because they’re early in their medical careers,” she said. “It’s important for me to show rising women physicians and women leaders that you don’t have to be a follower, you don’t have to fit the mold that everyone tells you to.”

Even her company’s name, CurieDx, highlights the importance of female role models; it’s derived from the surname of Marie Curie, a pioneering physicist and chemist who studied radioactivity and created the first mobile x-rays for use during World War I.

“The inspiration of women as innovators, women as leaders — that’s really rooted in my core values and the core values of the company,” Canares said.