numbers game

Data-focused Houston company arms startups with the AI tools they need to grow

It's all a numbers game, and Mercury Data Science is about setting up startups for success. Getty Images

While some say a picture is worth a thousand words, having the right data can be make or break. Houston-based Mercury Data Science is using data and artificial intelligence to paint some really specific pictures for its clients.

MDS was born out of a need for Houston-based Mercury Fund's portfolio companies that wanted a firmer handle on artificial intelligence and data science.

"Three years ago, a number of Mercury Fund portfolio companies and potential investments began to have increasingly important data science and AI components," says Dan Watkins, co-founder and managing director of Mercury Fund. "Mercury's partners wanted a deeper understanding of AI, to understand how the cutting edge meets industry use cases."

Mercury Fund's first move was to tap data scientist Angela Wilkins to lead some training, which then turned into even more workshops and advising. The companies ranged from early seed stage startups to companies that had raised over $100 million — and they wanted Wilkins' help, either with the basics of data science or execution of analytics.

"In fact, many of the more established companies were sitting on data assets with plans to build AI-enabled products but didn't have the time or people to really start that process," Wilkins says. "After helping a few companies, we realized the need was pretty deep, and bigger than the Mercury Fund portfolio."

Wilkins, who serves the company as CTO and co-CEO with Watkins, has seen her efforts grow MDS client base. InnovationMap sat down with Wilkins to see how far MDS has come — and where it's going.

InnovationMap: What sort of problems and data solutions are you providing clients?

Angela Wilkins: We love projects that have a direct impact on human health. In health, we build machine learning driven products to create new forms of digital diagnostics to help improve diagnosis in areas like cognitive functioning and depression. We have helped several therapeutics companies accelerate drug discovery and development by extracting insights from biological and imaging data. We have internal tools that use natural language processing to extract knowledge from millions of scientific publications and patents.

We have also worked quite a bit in consumer behavior and some of our physics-oriented data scientists are now working on noise reduction in geophysics technologies.

IM: What feedback do you get from clients?

AW: Company leaders in every sector are feeling the pressure to gain the advantages of AI or risk falling behind. There are many expert level teams available to Fortune 500 organizations. We are one of the very few teams that is entrepreneurial and agile enough to work with earlier stage, high growth organizations.

IM: How does MDS work with Mercury Fund? Has that relationship evolved over the years?

AW: We continue to work with the Mercury Fund portfolio companies but that is a smaller part of what we do. We are venture backed ourselves, and have now become a Mercury Fund portfolio company, with the same growth ambitions as all venture backed companies.

IM: Recently, MDS has seen some growth. How many employees have you added and are you still hiring?

AW: We are up to 20 employees, mostly data scientists, many with 5 to 8 years of experience working in AI, bioinformatics, and data science to provide insights and build products. We are always looking for great data scientists and data engineers to join our team. We also started a fellowship position for recent graduates, and so we can identify and train the next generation of data scientists

IM: What's been the biggest surprise for you as MDS has grown?

AW: We have been able to create this unique culture that thrives on diversity of thought and background. Half of our team is women. We are solving hard problems that benefit from the creativity you get from a wide variety of views.

IM: Where are MDS clients based?

AW: We have clients from San Francisco to Basel. We have learned how to build an integrated, high communication team with the client, so location is not critical.

That being said, we are active in and committed contributors to the Houston innovation ecosystem. Many of us are from a computational biology and bioinformatics background with deep roots in the Texas Medical Center institutions. Houston has amazing talent and we want to show the data scientists that they don't have to leave Houston to work on interesting problems and continue to build skills at the cutting edge while working for companies all over the world.

IM: What sort of trends are you seeing in venture capital? Are these trends happening in Houston?

We are seeing increasing investments in health AI. Fierce Healthcare reports that health AI topped all other sectors last year with $4B invested into AI startups. Andreesen Horowitz has announced their third and largest biotech and health care fund with $750 million to invest: "Machine learning and artificial intelligence [will] have an outsize impact on how we discover drugs and diagnose disease."

We see similar trends in other areas from industrial software to financial services. The upshot is that the adoption of AI creates significant opportunities for startups and significant challenges for larger companies that are not entrepreneurial and able to build their own data science skill set.

As far as Houston goes, the same trends are there but we tend to lag the major technology hubs in adoption. Efforts like TMC Innovation, Station, Rice University/The Ion and Houston Exponential are having a big impact on both the number and pace of startups and, increasingly, those have AI as a key part of their technology stack.

IM: We've talked about how MDS flies under the radar — why do you think that is? Do you think that'll change as you grow?

AW: Our initial focus was on the work for our clients and on building our team. We are ready to be noticed. Thank you for helping us tell the story with this article.

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Building Houston

 
 

InformAI has three AI-based products geared at improving health care. Photo via Getty Images

In Houston, we’re lucky to have top-tier doctors in the Texas Medical Center, ready to treat us with the newest technology. But what about our family members who have to rely on rural hospitals? Thanks to one Houston company, doctors in smaller community hospitals may soon have new tools at their disposal that could improve outcomes for patients around the world.

Since InnovationMap last caught up with Jim Havelka, CEO of InformAI, two years ago, that hope has come far closer to a reality. InformAI is a VC-backed digital health company. Part of JLABS @ TMC innovation facilities, the company uses artificial intelligence to develop both diagnostic tools and clinical outcome predictors. And two of the company’s products will undergo FDA regulatory testing this year.

SinusAI, which helps to detect sinus-related diseases in CT scans, received its CE Mark — the European equivalent of FDA approval — last year and is being sold across the Atlantic today, says Havelka. He adds that in the United States alone, there are roughly 700,000 sinus surgeries that the product is positioned to support.

Another product, RadOnc-AI, is designed to help doctors prescribe radiation dose plans for head and neck cancers.

“Ideally the perfect plan would be to provide radiation to the tumor and nothing around it,” says Havelka. “We’ve built a product, RadOnc-AI, which autogenerates the dose treatment plan based on medical images of that patient.”

It can be an hours-long process for doctors to figure out the path and dose of radiation themselves, but the new product “can build that initial pass in about five minutes,” Havelka says.

That in itself is an exciting development, but because this technology was developed using the expertise of some of the world’s top oncologists, “the first pass plan is in line with what [patients would] get at tier-one institutions,” explains Havelka. This creates “tremendous equity” among patients who can afford to travel to major facilities and those that can’t.

To that end, RadOnc-AI was recently awarded a $1.55 million grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, or CPRIT, a state agency that funds cancer research. The Radiological Society of North America announced late last year that InformAI was named an Aunt Minnie Best of Radiology Finalist.

“It’s quite prestigious for our company,” says Havelka. Other recent laurels include InformAI being named one of the 10 most promising companies by the Texas Life Science Forum in November.

And InformAI is only gaining steam. A third product is earlier in its stage of development. TransplantAI will optimize donor organ and patient recipient matches.

“A lot of organs are harvested and discarded,” Havelka says.

His AI product has been trained on a million donor transplants to help determine who is the best recipient for an organ. It even takes urgency into account, based on a patient’s expected mortality within 90 days. The product is currently a fully functional prototype and will soon move through its initial regulatory clearances.

The company — currently backed by three VC funds, including DEFTA Partners, Delight Ventures, and Joyance Partners — is planning to do another seed round in Q2 of 2023.

“We’ve been able to get recognized for digital health products that can be taken to market globally,” says Havelka.

But what he says he’s most excited about is the social impact of his products. With more money raised, InformAI will be able to speed up development of additional products, including expanding the cancers that the company will be targeting. And with that, more and more patients will one day be treated with the highest level of care.

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