Singapore wants AI startups to think about healthcare

SingHealth inks three-year partnership with SGInnovate to provide resources and opportunities that deep tech startups need to develop artificial intelligence tools for the healthcare sector.

Singapore is looking to steer more concerted efforts towards the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in healthcare, through a new partnership that aims to gather expertise from both fields. A three-year collaboration between SingHealth and SGInnovate will offer resources and opportunities that deep tech startups need to develop AI applications to enhance healthcare services. 

The partnership would drive the adoption of AI and other emerging technologies to improve diagnostics and treatment, and healthcare delivery and clinical outcomes for Singapore, said Health Minister Ong Ye Kung at the Memorandum of Understanding signing Tuesday. 

Funded by Singapore's Ministry of Finance, SGInnovate is an investment firm that focuses on deep tech startups. SingHealth is the country's largest group of healthcare institutions comprising more than 40 clinical specialties including public hospitals and polyclinics.

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Both organisations would be able to advance healthcare AI innovations in meaningful ways, Ong said, noting that the partnership would establish "communities of practice" and organise knowledge-sharing events such as to gather healthcare experts and the deep tech community, including startups, corporates, and innovators.

"This partnership will also focus on providing startups with the resources they need to develop and grow. This includes connecting innovators to potential investors and supporting startups in developing business plans, go-to-market strategies, and commercial networking," the minister said. 

He added that deep tech founders would be encouraged to work with clinician scientists and investigators, doctors, nurses, and health professionals from SingHealth. He added that efforts here could include reverse pitches, where innovators from SingHealth present clinical needs to a network of startups to come up with potential applications.

The two partners also would look to build talent through real-world training opportunities and exchanges. Venture capitalists and multinational companies, for example, would be called upon to provide on-the-job training to help local talent develop innovation and enterprise capabilities, Ong said. 

In building the community of practice, SingHealth's clinicians and SGInnovate's public and private sector partners in the health science would come together regularly to "shape mindsets" towards the use of AI in health, the two companies said in a joint statement. 

Through activities such as reverse pitches, clinicians and healthcare professionals would have the platform to present disease and clinical workflow requirements, which startups then could develop AI-powered tools to address the gaps and subsequently have these tested in a clinical setting. 

Singapore's healthcare industry already has been running various initiatives that use AI, according to Ong. For instance, Changi General Hospital and Integrated Health Information Systems (IHiS) jointly developed a deep-learning system to estimate the likelihood a patient might develop severe pneumonia based on an automated assessment of chest X-rays. This allowed early intervention from doctors.

A joint research team involving Singapore National Eye Centre, Singapore Eye Research Institute, and NUS School of Computing also developed Singapore Eye LEsioN Analyser Plus, or SELENA+. The AI system uses retina images to detect major eye diseases and has been deployed across 20 polyclinics. 

Ong added that wearable sensors and cloud computing could be tapped to remotely monitor patients' vital sign readings and symptoms, real-time. The data then would be analysed using AI to predict early complications of diseases.

SingHealth Group CEO Ivy Ng said: "The adoption of healthcare technologies and innovations, such as AI, is critical for the future of medicine to optimise precious resources and ensure a more robust healthcare system to respond to evolving patient needs...This new partnership will be strategic in equipping our healthcare innovators to advance AI in health and catalyse the process of translating novel ideas from bench to bedside."

Singapore this week unveiled two new programmes to drive the adoption of AI in the government and financial services sectors. It also would invest another SG$180 million ($133.31 million) in the national research and innovation strategy to tap the technology in key areas, such as healthcare and education.

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