Tanay Tandon was a freshman at Stanford University studying mathematics and computer science when he co-founded Athelas, a blood-testing startup, to make blood diagnostics routine, cheap, and quick.
Athelas got its start at a Y Combinator’s Hackathon in 2014. Over the next year, Tandon refined his invention, and in the summer of 2016, Athelas was accepted to YCombinator, where Tandon and his co-founder Deepika Bodapati, worked on building market-ready prototypes.
Using machine learning and computer vision, Athelas can identify and count white blood cells, a key metric in monitoring immune health. To use the device, an unassuming, sleek design for use in physicians offices and homes alike, users simply apply a drop of blood to a specially-treated glass slide and in minutes, users receive results on their smartphone.
Tandon said he wanted Athelas to become a widely used “metricing-tool” that provides useful, actionable information for physicians and patients. Growing up in a family of physicians, Tandon saw a need for quantification and data in medicine to improve patient outcomes and improve quality of care.
By the end of Summer of 2016, Athelas had graduated from YCombinator, undergone several clinical trials, raised 3.5 million dollars, and begun to manufacture and ship its devices to consumers. Athelas hopes to expand beyond the consumer market to clinics and doctors offices.
At small clinics, Tandon believes doctors will see Athelas as a significant value-add. “The test is cheap and fast enough that clinics don’t have to get a reimbursement from insurance companies to benefit from our device,” he said.
Currently the startup produces a 100 devices a month, but expects to ramp up production and increase revenues through selling test strips. To do this, Tandon has taken a year off from his studies at Stanford to work full-time at the company.
Unlike consumer markets, selling to health clinics and doctor’s offices would be a low device volume, high test strip volume market. Over the next few months, Athelas hopes to acquire 100 clinical customers. Already, Athelas is laying the groundwork, meeting with physicians and demonstrating the technology in-person.
Currently, there is no consensus on how many blood tests leukemia and other at-risk patient populations need, but Tandon explains that the startup will work closely with physicians as it matures. “We have to work closely with the community to develop recommended testing practices,” Tandon said.
Closely aligned with Athelas’ collaboration with physicians, the company believes strongly in data and clinical validation of its product. “We’ll go to physicians and say ‘here’s the data from the gold standard and here’s the data from our device.’ We really let the data speak for itself.” To promote transparency, Athelas publishes clinical trial and benchmark comparison data online at athelas.com.
In the future, Athelas may expand its test offerings beyond white blood cell counts. Tandon believes the machine learning technology at the core of Athelas, is applicable to other diagnostic tests, with the ultimate goal to make blood morphology tests more accessible. As the company grows and its sensors collect more data, Tandon predicts Athelas will be able to recognize nuanced disease trends that competitors can’t through analysis of its large data sets.
To aspiring biotech entrepreneurs, Tandon strongly emphasizes planning. In the creation of Athelas, Tandon and his co-founder went through several iterations of plans, closely detailing important milestones for the company. ”Plan it out well with a lot of contingencies in place,” said Tandon.