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Tomi Poutanen says he’s thought for years about how to apply AI to health care.Fred Lum

Four years ago, Tomi Poutanen sold his artificial intelligence startup Layer 6 to Toronto-Dominion Bank for more than US$100-million and became TD’s chief AI officer. TD used Layer 6′s AI engine for dozens of applications, such as predicting when customers might buy homes and detecting fraudulent insurance claims.

Now Mr. Poutanen is pursuing a higher goal – using AI to save lives. Mr. Poutanen is leaving TD to lead his latest startup, Signal 1 AI Inc. It is aiming to bring to market an artificial intelligence tool that will help hospitals predict which patients are at greatest risk of dying and need immediate intervention.

Mr. Poutanen, a doctor’s husband, said he’s thought for years about how to apply AI to health care.

“There’s a lot of hype around AI and health care … but it’s justified because there’s so much promise,” he said in an interview. “There’s so much data flowing through hospitals, but nobody is using it appropriately. Machines can help add value to improve health outcomes.”

The company will commercialize AI technology developed at St. Michael’s Hospital, a part of Unity Health Toronto, funded by billionaire benefactor Li Ka-shing. Unity’s 30-person data science and advanced analytics group is led by researcher Muhammad Mamdani.

Mr. Poutanen brings an extensive background to the startup. He studied computer engineering at University of Toronto under deep-learning pioneer Geoff Hinton and sold startups to Yahoo! and Microsoft, building key search tools for them using machine learning. He is a co-founder of the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence and an original fellow of the Creative Destruction Lab accelerator program.

He studied neural networks and wrote his master’s thesis on cryptocurrency – in the 1990s. “I was always ahead of my time,” he said.

His Signal 1 co-founder, Mara Lederman, is leaving a tenured professorship and $364,000 salary at University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and a leadership role with the CDL, where she helped health-oriented startups.

Her career plan was never to teach permanently, but rather “to move into a position of taking things I had studied, written about and taught about, and start doing them in real life,” Ms. Lederman said. “Early on in getting to know [Mr. Poutanen], I told him, ‘When I’m done with this, I would love us to do something together.’”

Mr. Poutanen is leaving not only with TD’s blessing (he will remain an adviser to the bank) and six employees, but also funding. TD is kicking in $4-million of a US$10-million seed financing for Signal 1. The financing was led by Inovia Capital.

Other investors include Prof. Hinton, former Rogers Communications Inc. chief executive officer Nadir Mohamed, and venture capital firm Radical Ventures, where Mr. Poutanen serves as partner alongside Layer 6 co-founder Jordan Jacobs.

“They have demonstrated examples and can say these are the lives that have been saved,” said Inovia partner Steven Woods. “You want impact in a startup? That’s impact.”

The bank is also licensing to Signal 1 use of its globally renowned AI engine that Mr. Poutanen’s team built. That, combined with the St. Michael’s technology, will make its product faster and more effective, Mr. Poutanen said. “This is the most innovative thing a Canadian bank has ever done,” he said.

Andres Vives, TD’s chief data analytics officer, acknowledged it is “unusual” for a bank to license out a core piece of proprietary technology. “It takes a very compelling reason for a bank to do that,” he said. “We saw a great opportunity to put a fantastic asset in the hands of a [non-competitive] industry that can benefit from it, too.”

TD will also benefit from any improvements to the engine the Signal 1 team makes. Both partners stressed stringent privacy and security standards will ensure no sensitive data is shared.

“This is a landmark step for Canadian health care,” said Unity CEO Tim Rutledge. “It’s a first partnership that will result in scaling up health care innovation that can make a difference globally. It’s not our core business [selling technology] so we really need partners like Tomi to come in and help.”

The genesis of Signal 1 is the work of Dr. Mamdani, who has spent his career analyzing health care data. By the mid-2010s, he felt that applying AI to harnessed data in hospitals could help improve health outcomes. His team cleaned up the hospital’s disparate data sources to make them usable by his group, and asked medical staff what problems they faced, setting out to develop AI solutions for them.

That led to the creation of 20 to 30 programs used at the hospital. One pulls in data from inside the hospital and out, including weather, to predict emergency room volumes and adjust staffing. Another creates a visual timeline of patient medical histories to help residents get a quick read on their rounds.

The most successful has been a patient risk-monitoring system developed at the request of internists after a patient with a swollen gall bladder in for a routine checkup died after a rapid deterioration. With only hours to react to such circumstances, they asked Dr. Mamdani if his team could help predict who was at greatest risk of dying.

So his group developed ChartWatch, which pulls in vitals from internal medicine patients, lab results and demographic information every hour, with machines monitoring and automatically paging doctors if results deteriorate. Since its deployment in October, 2020, Dr. Mamdani said ChartWatch has resulted in a more than 15-per-cent drop in mortality rates among high-risk patients.

As word spread to other hospitals about the effectiveness of AI, Unity’s foundation board and management looked to bring in a commercial partner to turn its tools into sellable products.

Dr. Mamdani knew Mr. Poutanen. They had met at a job fair in 2018 when they were both trying to hire the same students. When Mr. Poutanen looked at their code, he felt “the AI was really good but I knew we could do much better,” he said. “I turned to my boss at TD and said, ‘I’m going to do this next, I want you to license the Layer 6 engine, I think it could be really impactful on health care.’”

TD agreed. The souped-up ChartWatch will be tested for a month at St. Michael’s before launching in market this year.

Signal 1 will look to take other Unity products to market. A hospital committee must first sign off, guided by a mission of putting purpose over profit and ensuring privacy, security and confidentiality are not compromised, Dr. Mamdani said.

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