What do a NY-based startup for AI cancer screening, a California-based startup that uses open source to build and manage distributed applications, and a Boston-based wearable technology startup have in common? Besides the fact that they are all located in the US, they share two more features – all of them are co-founded by Romanian tech entrepreneurs and have recently received some remarkable opportunities for accelerated growth.
At the end of October 2020, Ezra, a healthcare tech company that uses magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and AI to assist radiologists in the analysis of prostate cancer scans, became the first such startup to ever receive FDA authorization for its solution, after raising $18m in a Series A round a couple of months earlier. The two other companies – Anyscale, which develops a framework for distributed computing projects, and Whoop, which makes sensors-equipped wristbands for performance optimization, raised respectively $40m and $100m in the last weeks of October as well. It seems like the Romanian entrepreneurial diaspora is thriving overseas. What is the Romanian connection in the companies and how these recent achievements will impact their future development?
Technology with global impact and Romanian origins
The startup story of Ezra, which was co-founded by the young Romanian tech entrepreneur Emi Gal, began when Gal graduated from studying computer science and applied math in his home country. From a very young age, Gal has been aware of the importance of cancer screenings as he himself was at high risk of developing melanoma. In his late 20s, while working with a cancer patient charity, he realized there was a need for better cancer screenings, and that is when he began researching different methods. He conducted his own investigation and found out that MRIs could be used to detect cancer in the very early stages and that AI could perform cancer detection as well as a radiologist. He then worked closely with medical experts and with his co-founder Diego Cantor, who has a Ph.D. in deep learning applied to MRI, in order to train the AI on the medical dataset they have gathered.
Launching its MRI-based prostate cancer screening program and its full-body MRI scan in 2019, Ezra provides three solutions – accurate prostate volume measurements, semi-automatic lesion measurements, and automatic prostate and lesion segmentation, and 3D volume representation. In June 2020, in light of the Covid health crisis, the company launched the Ezra COVID 360 scan of the lungs to help people understand the potential long-term impact of COVID-19 on their lung health and check their antibody status. Now, the FDA authorization will allow the company to make its solution available for more people across the US and roll out its AI to all of its partners and imaging facilities. “I want Ezra to be synonymous with cancer screening, and for that, we need to really make cancer screening comprehensive, and we are working hard on that. We need to make it affordable, which we’re doing with our AI. We really are focusing on making cancer screening widely available and affordable, and our AI is pointing us towards that direction,” highlights Gal. So far, Ezra has scanned over 1k people and has helped more than 40 people find cancer, which is more than the typical detection rate of less than 1%.
The Romanian connection in the UC Berkeley team that solves the problems of big data programmers
The Romanian UC Berkeley professors Ion Stoica, together with another Berkey professor, Michael I. Jordan, and two Ph.D. Berkey students – Robert Nishihara and Philipp Moritz, stand behind the founding of the open-source developer platform Anyscale. Building on a solution that they have already developed in the past, the open-source Ray framework for distributed computing projects, Anyscale’s founders help developers with various skill sets to build applications that can operate at any scale. Their software allows organizations to bring AI applications to production faster, to reduce development costs, and to manage their applications without the support of in-house experts.
In light of the company’s recent $40m round of funding, Ion Stoica shares that Anyscale is seizing the market opportunities created by unprecedented events in 2020 and by the more long-lasting demand from companies that increasingly turn to cloud computing solutions and digital transformation in order to remain competitive. “At a high level, the trend that we see is that all applications are distributed and running on clusters, but building these applications is incredibly hard and requires teams with the right expertise,” explains Stoica. “What we are trying to build will make building a distributed computing project as easy as running a program on your laptop. It means that ordinary developers will be able to build scalable applications just like Google can build today,” he concludes. Therefore, the company intends to use the raised capital to continue developing its Ray platform and make its solution available not only to high-level developers and computing specialists but also to all tech people who want to implement projects requiring large amounts of computing power.
The next unicorn with Romanian co-founder
The Romanian connection in the wearable-technology health and analytics startup Whoop is Aurelian Nicolae who is a co-founder and the current Lead Product Engineer of the company. An engineer and a Harvard graduate, Nicolae met with the other two co-founders Will Ahmed and John Capodilupo at university and together they created their startup at Harvard Innovation Labs. Having recently raised $100m in a Series E financing round, Whoop has become the second unicorn startup co-founded by a Romanian after UiPath by reaching a $1.2b valuation. Alongside investors and VCs, in the funding participated popular athletes such as the NBA player Kevin Durant and the Super Bowl star Patrick Mahomes.
A company with a monthly subscription business model, Whoop captures physiological data including sleep, fitness, and recovery through its sensors-equipped wearable strip. It gives its users personalized insight about their training habits and recommends them how to recover based on the data collected through the sensors. The raised capital will be used to fuel the global expansion of the company, to accelerate the development of both its product and software, as well as to improve the platform’s membership services.