In the latest twist in the facial recognition tech tale, Melbourne startup Strong Room is developing artificial intelligence software for the dispensing of the opioid replacement drug methadone.
Co-founders Max Mito, Christopher Durre and Kieran Start have been working on Strong Room for three years now, but this year they took part in the inaugural Swinburne University accelerator.
Through the program, the co-founders have secured $30,000 in funding, and their startup is now up and running in 35 pharmacies in Victoria.
Strong Room uses facial recognition to identify patients receiving opioid replacement treatments, in a bid to make sure each patient gets the right dose every time, and to make the whole process more efficient.
The founders set out with a vision of using AI to create an all-round more integrated healthcare system, Mito tells StartupSmart. But, about a year in, they pivoted to the AI facial recognition model and trialled a ‘safe scripts’ system.
Almost every pharmacy they were testing the product with asked for the same thing — better opioid replacement management software.
“They just weren’t happy with the industry standard,” Mito explains.
“We thought we could do a better job.”
Meeting a need
Traditionally, methadone prescriptions have been managed using paper records, the co-founder says, requiring a signature from both the pharmacist and the patient every time, leaving room for human error when recording the number of doses dispensed.
These are highly addictive drugs that are susceptible to abuse, he notes.
For pharmacists, there’s a lot of admin, stocktake and management involved, “to make sure what they have on record is what is being administered”.
Strong Room’s software is partly designed to help do away with those issues.
It also automates the patient verification process, which reduces some of the pressure on large pharmacies with large opioid replacement programs and high numbers of casual staff members, “who might not be familiar with everybody’s names, and who are under pressure to dispense quickly and safely”, Mito explains.
Plus, he suggests, it can improve the experience for the patients themselves.
“Because it’s such a highly-regulated drug, they have to make daily trips to the pharmacy to pick up their doses,” he explains.
If patients can be in and out as quickly as possible, that minimises the disruption.
“It’s very intensive for them,” he says.
“So obviously you want to make the process as painless as possible.”
Setting a precedent
There’s an elephant in the room here. When you talk about facial recognition and AI being used for controlling the lives of addicts, things begin to sound a tad sinister.
Strong Room co-founder Christopher Durre admits the team is very cognisant of privacy concerns. But, he suggests the reputation that follows this tech isn’t always accurate — at least, not in the healthcare space.
“When people talk about facial recognition, to a lot of people it has this negative connotation. So I don’t think the industry has done a particularly good job, and that kind of makes sense given the way it’s been used in the past,” Durre says.
“But I think we are going to see a change, especially in the medical industry, where there are these more interesting use cases.”
The whole notion of facial recognition, especially within the pharmacy context, is a very new one, he adds.
For him, “it’s about setting the right precedent, and the right message”.
For example, when Strong Room implements its systems in any given pharmacy, it hands out a disclosure sheet, outlining what the data is being used for and where it’s being stored, “so they feel like their data is being stored responsibly”.
For now, Strong Room provides each individual pharmacy with its own individual tech, so Mito doesn’t see any immediate threat to the privacy of the opioid-replacement patients using it. The pharmacies have all of their data — including their images — on file anyway, he points out.
He does, however, see a future in healthcare where AI could be used to recognise a face, without having to store any of the information associated with it.
“There are companies working on non-invasive and anonymised identification solutions,” Mito explains.
“AI facial recognition would actually be serving to protect the privacy of individuals even further in the healthcare space.”
A long time in the making
The Strong Room co-founders are gearing up for a capital raise, and planning to look into how this technology could be applied to the aged-care space, as well the further applications it could have in pharmacies.
“We will be releasing two other products in the next six months or so that will complement our flagship product,” Mito says.
But, when it comes to profits, they’re in no real rush.
“Our basic premise in succeeding is to make the biggest positive change to society as possible, and we believe the money will follow afterwards,” Mito says.
And positive feedback from the initial pharmacies they’re working with comes as a welcome validation, Durre adds.
“Max and I have worked on it for three years plus now, and we’ve just started to get a product that we can sell into the market. It’s really fulfilling,” he says.
“It’s been a long time in the making.”
When it comes to launching a startup in the highly-regulated medical space, both Mito and Durre stress the importance of doing lots of research first.
“It’s really important to research carefully about what you’re doing,” Mito says.
“You’re not going to be completely right the first time … We’ve pivoted two times already from our original idea,” he adds.
“And we were laughed out of one original VC meeting.”
The team has a mantra they tell themselves when things are getting tough, he says.
“If something’s easy to do, it would have already been done.”
That said, Durre suggests once founders have done all of their research, and feel they have the skills to execute the concept, “go straight for it”.
“Nothing is easy in the medical industry, and there will be a lot of people that tell you you don’t have the skills to do it,” he says.
“But it’s about being tenacious, working on it as hard as you can, and it will work out eventually.”