Mediwhale co-founder and CEO Kevin Choi discovered that he had lost vision in nearly half of one of his eyes from glaucoma when he was 24, which is rare in young people.
“I was devastated and could not believe this was happening to me,” Choi told TechCrunch. “There were no [initial] symptoms for me to recognize. If this had been diagnosed and treated early, I could have saved my vision.”
This ordeal motivated Choi to start a company to help people detect health risks early, even before symptoms appear. Following his treatment, Choi and his doctor Tyler Rim, a vitreoretinal surgeon, founded Mediwhale in 2016. The Seoul-headquartered healthcare startup has built an AI-powered non-invasive retina scan to diagnose cardiac and kidney disorders and more diseases through its patients’ retinal photographs.
Mediwhale’s first product is Reti-CVD, an AI-powered retinal diagnostic solution that assesses the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) in patients. Choi told TechCrunch that early detection and assessment of CVD risks would let users start statin therapy early for CVD intermediate and high-risk groups. Mediwhale’s tech offers results in under a minute, according to Choi.
Medical professionals typically use computerized cardiac tomography (CT) scans to predict CVD risk. Despite its accuracy, high-dose radiation exposure, a relatively high price and long wait times for final results are the drawbacks of a cardiac CT scan. Mediwhale claims its Reti-CVD precision matched cardiac CT scanning in predicting potential CVD risks, while avoiding radiation exposure entirely, and being accessible in primary care settings rather than in dedicated testing facilities.
The startup’s primary targets are those who currently do not currently have cardiovascular disease but have the potential to develop CVD in the future, like diabetes and metabolic disease patients, Choi said. Mediwhale focuses on South Korea as a testbed before launching its service in the U.S.
Just last week, Mediwhale’s Reti-CVD received a temporary reimbursement code for two years from the Korean national insurance government, Choi told TechCrunch. The latest approval comes roughly eight months after it earned medical device approval in August. In other words, health insurance covers Reti-CVD as doctors in primary care and hospitals officially use it to treat patients in South Korea for the next two years; afterward, Mediwhale must submit additional clinical data to get a permanent code. It expects to sell its product this summer in South Korea.
Mediwhale recently closed $9 million in Series A funding, which brings its total to $12 million since inception. SBI Investment led the latest financing with new investor Woori Venture Partners and previous backers BNK Venture Capital, Innopolis Partners and IPS Ventures participating.
Its Series A will enable Mediwhale to accelerate the commercialization of Reti-CVD, Choi said, adding that it aims to obtain U.S. FDA clearance and implement U.S. insurance coverage with a goal of final FDA approval by 2024.
Mediwhale isn’t the only company doing work using AI in the medical diagnostics space. Alphabet’s Verily raised $ 1 billion to expand its data-driven healthcare products in 2022. Digital Diagnostics, formerly known as IDx, an AI-powered diagnostics company, secured $75 million in Series B financing led by KKR last year.