In the Service of Health: Mosquito Sterilization and Sensory Processing
Creative solution for preventing the spread of disease by mosquitoes and innovative technology that enables identification of autism are two examples of Israeli ventures that try to change the lives of millions through health impact investments
Every 30 seconds, a child dies somewhere from a disease caused by a mosquito bite, according to Hanan Lepek, the founder of an Israeli startup Senecio Robotics. "This is a huge market, and the solution we are offering will have an impact in terms of global health," Lepek said. "Our vision as a company is to be a go-to for advanced technology tackling mosquitos."
Senecio Robotics offers a creative solution for curbing severe diseases caused by mosquito bites, such as Dengue Fever and malaria, by introducing artificial intelligence and robotics into the field of biocontrol. It is one of the companies presented as part of a recent review published by the Israel Innovation Authority (IIA) on Impact Investments. The report focuses on two health sector companies, SensPD and Senecio Robotics, to demonstrate how impact investments generate profits not only for entrepreneurs but also for Israelis and people worldwide.
Mosquitos are the leading animal cause of disease and death. Approximately 700 million people are infected with mosquito-borne diseases each year, with about one million of them dying as a result. Lepek, a computer engineer with expertise in applied physics and business management and more than ten-year-experience in the field of aerospace, came up with a creative technological solution. Female mosquitoes, solely responsible for bites, only mate once in their lifespan. A going theory is that if large numbers of sterilized male mosquitoes are released to mate with wild females, it could dramatically reduce the species' numbers in subsequent generations.
The use of sterilized mosquitoes for reducing local mosquito populations is called sterile insect technique (SIT). It is already implemented around the world and has proven successful in several limited scale projects in countries including the U.S., Singapore, China, Brazil, and Australia. Nevertheless, taking the technology from the lab into commerciality and making it available to municipalities and governments throughout the world is not so simple. It requires a supportive technology that can accelerate procedures such as sorting male and female mosquitos, packaging them into containers, and releasing them automatically. All these actions are currently performed manually.
This is where Senecio Robotics focused its efforts. "Senecio Robotics created a sorting mechanism that has a precision level of close to 100%," Lepek said. "We were recently informed that Senecio Robotics' patent application for image-based mosquito sorting has been accepted, and we are currently developing other automatic systems. We work with governments as well as commercial entities in several countries such as the U.S., Brazil, Africa, and a number of European countries to establish production processes for sterile mosquitoes," Lepek said.
In March 2019, Senecio Robotics won first place as a pioneering initiative in the international 'Future of AI' competition for startups. The company has also won many other awards as well as funding for a demonstration in Brazil from the Ministry of Economy and Industry. "The cooperation with the Innovation Authority proves that you should never give up," Lepek said. "We submitted our request three times before succeeding. The idea is so crazy that it wasn't completely understood, but eventually, the evaluators realized the extent of our solution's potential impact on global health and the efforts we need to invest – and approved the program. The Authority's support provides an initiative such as ours with prestige and a technological stamp of approval, together with financial support that will assist the company in its developmental processes alongside continued efforts to recruit additional financing.
"Impact investing is targeted at providing a business-economic response to specific social or environmental problems and the companies applying to these programs are required to define, not only technological-commercial objectives, but also the way their development will offer a response to the problem and the relevant sustainable development goal it addresses," said Aharon Aharon, CEO of IIA.
In addition to the grant from the IIA, SensPD has won several awards, including a grant from the Mirage Foundation for entrepreneurs aged over 45, and a $180,000 grant from WeWork. The company also won first place in the 2018 Reboot Forum's Leading Israeli Health Initiative competition operated in conjunction with the Ministry of Health, a grant from the EU-SME, and second place in the She Loves Tech competition that encourages female entrepreneurs.
Entrepreneur Maayan Shahar, CEO of SensPD, said she searched for a project with meaningful impact and value that she could connect to emotionally. She found what she was looking for in SensPD, after meeting founder Raffi Rembrand. "Rembrand is the father of a child with autism who has devoted his life to studying this field," Shahar said.
Since 2000, Rembrand, an engineer who specializes in signal processing, has been working full-time as an independent researcher, collaborating with universities around the world to identify an objective, physical, quantifiable characteristic of autism that will enable early detection. "Rembrand became what is known as a professional parent: an active, involved, learning parent, a real expert," Shahar said.
"There is no doubt today that early intervention, available already from a very early developmental stage, changes the lives of those with autism," Shahar said. "The problem is that the diagnostic process of autism is behavior-based and is therefore only possible at a later age. That is exactly what we want to change. It is important to remember that the behavior is a result, a symptom, and not the cause of the problem. So the focus on it as a diagnostic tool is, therefore, missing something. Our years of research will enable SensPD to measure the source, the sensory perception mechanism, which we believe causes the impaired functioning associated with autism."
"We use the sense of hearing as an opportunity to identifying autism," Shahar explains. "The simple, short, and non-invasive test is conducted with a device called otoacoustic emission (OAE) and is similar to the deafness test used worldwide on babies after birth. It requires minimal cooperation on the part of the patient, is performed without anesthesia, and tests the sensory perception mechanism that is developed already after birth. In practice, we have taken this device a step further by making several IP-protected technological alterations to measure the sensory perception system׳s performance and thereby identify autism."
"Our goals are both to identify autism and to locate where the patients are on its broad spectrum, and we are now in the midst of a clinical study. The study is being conducted together with the Shaare Zedek Medical Center and is headed by Adi Aran, a leader in the study of biomarkers for autism. There are several universities around the world that are waiting for the results of the current study in order to embark on wide-scale studies of their own, and this is our plan of action for the next few years," Shahar said.
"A Ministry of Health report published in 2018 also reveals differences in autism diagnosis between central Israel and the country's periphery, and an EU report even indicates differences between countries," adds Shahar. "One of the main reasons for this is the access to and quality of the medical team during the diagnosis process. That explains the need for an easy-to-use objective tool, just like the one we are developing, with which an audiologist can perform the test. The test itself is very simple," Shahar said.
SensPD aims to introduce its technology into postnatal screening tests, just like the test for deafness performed today. "Diagnosing autism in a postnatal screening test will change the lives of millions of people," Shahar said.
"We received a grant from the Innovation Authority as part of its Assistive Technology for the Disabled Program," Shahar said. "Our initiative is extremely ambitious and the authority's support facilitated our collaboration with Shaare Zedek and enabled us to recruit a research team, conduct the study, and to make progress until we attained the desired results with which we can take our vision into the private sector."
The article was written in collaboration with the Israel Innovation Authority, the Israel governmental investment arm.