Innovative technology, currently being developed by the SensPD corporation, that enables the early objective identification of autism and Sensio Robotics’ creative solution for preventing the spread of disease by mosquitos. These two revolutionary developments – both of which have improved the lives of millions – started out with the support of the Israel Innovation Authority.
Maayan Shahar, CEO of SensPD, who came with a background in management and experience in founding companies, searched for a project with meaningful impact and value that she could connect to emotionally. After a joint friend acquainted her with Raffi Rembrand, the founder of SensPD, she realized that she had found exactly what she was looking for. “Rembrand is the father of a child with autism who has devoted his life to studying this field,” says Shahar. “His son was only diagnosed when he was 4 years old. Such a belated diagnosis wasn’t exceptional in the 1980s even though it was known already then that early intervention can significantly change the condition of a child on the autistic spectrum. Rembrand became what is known as a professional parent – an active, involved, learning parent – and became a real expert. Rembrand is an engineer who specializes in signal processing and that is also the technology we use. From the year 2000, he has been working fulltime as an independent researcher and collaborates with universities around the world in an effort to identify an objective, physical, quantifiable characteristic of autism that will enable early detection.”
Early Detection of Autism has Dramatic Importance
Our interaction with the world consists of three stages. The first stage is signal registration – signals that are registered and received via the five senses. In other words, the information we smell, taste, hear, see and feel about the world is received as signals. The second stage is sensory perception. The information received via our senses undergoes a process of enhancement and filtering and reaches the brain stem. During the third stage, the information moves from the brain stem to the cortex for processing and decoding. Research has revealed and proved that in people with autism, the first stage works properly. In other words, the problem for autistic people starts in the second stage – the sensory perception stage – due to some disorder in the filtering process that is expressed in what we define as autism i.e., communication and behavioral problems.
“There is no doubt today that early intervention, available already from a very early developmental stage, changes the lives of those with autism,” Shahar clarifies. “The problem is that the diagnostic process of autism is behavior-based and is therefore only possible at a later age. That is exactly what we want to change. It’s important to remember that the behavior is a result, a symptom – and not the cause of the problem – so the focus on it as a diagnostic tool is therefore missing something. Our years of research will enable SensPD to measure the source, the sensory perception mechanism, which we believe causes the impaired functioning associated with autism.”
The Sense of Hearing as an Opening to Identifying Autism
“We use the sense of hearing as an opening to identifying autism,” Shahar explains. “The simple, short and non-invasive test is conducted with a device called OAE (Otoacoustic Emission) and is similar to the deafness test used for worldwide on babies after birth. It requires minimal cooperation on part of the patient, is performed without anesthesia, and tests the sensory perception mechanism that is developed already after birth. In practice, we have taken this device a step further by making several IP-protected technological alterations in order to measure the sensory perception system׳s performance and thereby identify autism.”
According to Shahar, for those on the autistic spectrum, the information reaches the brain stem in a different manner. The research process was constructed in such a way that it enables to distinguish between two main groups: “typically developed” people and those on the autistic spectrum. “Our goals are both to identify autism and to locate where the patients are on its broad spectrum, and we are now in the midst of a clinical study. The study is being conducted together with the Shaare Zedek Medical Center and is headed by Dr. Adi Aran, a leader in the study of biomarkers for autism. The results of the study, which encompasses children between the ages of 1.5-13 years, will help us advance to a prospective study with newborn babies. There are several universities around the world that are waiting for the results of the current study in order to embark on widescale studies of their own, and this is our plan of action for the next few years,” says Shahar.
The Vision: An Autism Diagnosis for Every Newborn Baby
“A Ministry of Health report published in 2018 also reveals differences in autism diagnosis between central Israel and the country’s periphery, and an EU report even indicates differences between countries,” adds Shahar. “One of the main reasons for this is the access to and quality of the medical team during the diagnosis process. That explains the need for an easy-to-use objective tool just like the one we are developing, with which an audiologist can perform the test. The test itself is very simple״.
SensPD aims to introduce its technology into postnatal screening tests, just like the test for deafness performed today. “Diagnosing autism in a postnatal screening test will change the lives of millions of people,” says Shahar. “We envisioned a product that would have added impact because changing the life of a child who was diagnosed at an early age, also has a wider influence – the immediate family, the community and society in general.
“We received a grant from the Innovation Authority as part of its ‘Assistive Technology for the Disabled Program’,” says Shahar. “Our initiative is extremely ambitious and the Authority’s support facilitated our collaboration with Shaare Zedek and enabled us to recruit a research team, conduct the study, and to make progress until we attained the desired results with which we can take our vision into the private sector.”
Aharon Aharon, CEO of the Innovation Authority: “Impact investing is targeted at providing a business-economic response to specific social or environmental problems and the companies applying to these programs are required to define, not only technological-commercial objectives, but also the way their development will offer a response to the problem and the relevant sustainable development goal it addresses.”
In addition to the grant from the Innovation Authority, SensPD has won several awards, including a grant from the Mirage Foundation for entrepreneurs aged over 45, and a grant of USD 180,000 from WeWork. The company also won first place in the 2018 Reboot Forum ‘Leading Israeli Health Initiative’ competition run in conjunction with the Ministry of Health, a grant from the EU-SME, and second place in the ‘She Loves Tech’ competition that encourages female entrepreneurs.
The Mosquitos That Will Save us from Disease
Hanan Lepek, the founder of an Israeli startup named Senecio Robotics, also dreams of creating a significant impact in the health field. Senecio Robotics offers a creative solution for curbing serious diseases (such as Dengue Fever and malaria) caused by mosquito bites, by introducing artificial intelligence and robotics into the field of biocontrol. Mosquitos are the leading animal cause of disease and death worldwide. Approximately 700 million people are infected with diseases globally every year because of mosquito bites with about 1 million of them dying as a result. And yet, despite all our progress, disease transmission via mosquitos is an ever-increasing problem, not least due to the fact that the mosquitos have developed high resistance to chemical pest control which, coupled with climate changes, has led to an increase in the number of mosquitos.
Lepek, a computer engineer with expertise in applied physics and business management and with more than ten years’ experience working with different technologies in the aerospace field, came up with a creative solution that uses unique technologies. Because the female mosquitos – the only ones to bite – mate only once during their lifespan, it is assumed that if large numbers of male mosquitos are sterilized and released to seek and mate with wild females, it will be possible to dramatically reduce the numbers in subsequent generations of mosquitos. The use of sterilized mosquitos for reducing the local population is called SIT (Sterile Insect Technique).
This technique is already implemented around the world and has even proved itself in several projects of limited scale in countries such as the US, Singapore, China, Brazil, Australia and others. Nevertheless, transforming the solution from a lab technology into an industrial and commercial product that municipalities and countries can use requires a supportive technology that can accelerate procedures such as sorting the mosquitos (between male and female), packaging them into hundreds of boxes and releasing them automatically, all of which are today performed manually.
This is exactly where Senecio Robotics focused its efforts after the company identified the potential for automation following the agricultural success of this pest control method with fruit flies. “The process of sorting the male and female mosquitos can be performed relatively easily using a camera, but their flight makes identification difficult,” Lepek explains. “Senecio Robotics created a mechanism for sorting male and female mosquitos that has a precision level of close to 100%. The mechanism creates special conditions that cause the mosquitos to stand motionless while being photographed. We also created an entire process in which we grow the mosquitos and lead them to the photography point automatically – enabling us to operate like an industrial factory with our own unique adaptations, so that we have a kind of conveyor belt of mosquitos undergoing sorting, packaging and storage. Reproducing this method enables the creation of sterile mosquitos at industrial levels of production and the release of millions of sterile mosquitos a day via controlled and automatic systems.”
“There are several other groups operating in this field around the world, but I can proudly say that we are leading the way in several areas and have a strong portfolio of patents,” Lepek says. “We are the first in the world to have tested a mosquito distribution system, the first to release male mosquitos from an aircraft, and the only ones in the world thus far to have used a plane to release a set of male mosquitos that actually survived. We were recently informed that Senecio Robotics’ patent application for image-based mosquito sorting has received a positive answer and we are currently in the development stages of other automatic systems. Our connection to the manufacturing processes is with government as well as commercial entities in several countries such as the US, Brazil, Africa, Europe and others where factories for sterile mosquito production can be established. Our current focus is on automatic quality control and packaging of the sterile mosquitos – i.e., automatically inserting them into cartridges for automatic release in controlled and monitored quantities and locations,” Lepek describes. “Unlike chemical pest control, the mosquitos do not develop resistance to our method, and we aren’t harming the environment. Following an approach from the Ministry of Environmental Protection, we are now checking, together with others, the possibility of undertaking the project in Israel.”
A Child Dies Somewhere Every 30 Seconds from a Disease Caused by Mosquito Bite
In March 2019, Senecio Robotics won first place, as a pioneering initiative, in the international ‘Future of AI’ competition for startups. The company has also won many other awards as well as funding for a demonstration in Brazil from the Ministry of Economy and Industry. “The cooperation with the Innovation Authority proves that you should never give up,” Lepek explains. “We submitted our request three times before succeeding. The idea is so crazy that it wasn’t completely understood, but eventually the evaluators realized the extent of our solution’s potential impact on global health and the efforts we need to invest – and approved the program. The Authority’s support provides an initiative such as ours with prestige and a technological stamp of approval, together with financial support that will assist the company in its developmental processes alongside continued efforts to recruit additional financing.
“Around the world, every 30 seconds a child dies somewhere from a disease caused by mosquito bite. This is not a problem unique to developing countries such as Africa but rather, one that also affects developed countries like Singapore (which experienced an outbreak of Dengue Fever in 2019), the United States, Thailand, Brazil and India. The developed nations invest billions of dollars every year to fight mosquitos. This is a huge market and the solution we are offering will have an impact on in terms of global health,” he emphasizes. “Our vision as a company is to be a “go-to” company for anything related to advanced technology used in the struggle against mosquitos, from production processes up to the release of sterile mosquitos. We are already well on the way to realizing this vision thanks to the unique IP and the acknowledgement our abilities have received from leading parties worldwide,” Lepek concludes.