D3-backed Aifred Health takes second place in IBM Watson AI XPRIZE competition – and $1M

The startup received vital support from Concordia’s District 3 Innovation Hub on the road to a top 2 finish in the 5-year global contest

Aifred Health, a Montreal-based startup that uses machine learning to treat depression, has earned second spot and $1 million from the IBM Watson AI XPRIZE competition.

At the start of the international event five years ago, Aifred Health was one of more than 150 registered teams – all using artificial intelligence (AI) to tackle challenges facing humanity.

When the competition wrapped up June 23, the team was among the top two on the podium. The winners, Israeli startup ZappMaleria, took home the grand prize of $3 million for its AI technology geared toward eliminating malaria.

From the outset, Concordia’s District 3 Innovation Hub played a key supporting role for Aifred Health.

When he met founding members David Benrimoh, Sonia Israel, Robert Fratila and Kelly Perlman in 2016, District 3 AI fellow Sydney Swaine-Simon felt the team’s energy would make them strong candidates for the XPRIZE competition.

Still undergraduate students at the time, the four ended up among the 11 teams from Canada that ultimately participated.

“Being part of their journey from day one and gaining the opportunity to work with them was really fantastic,” says Swaine-Simon.

“It was cool seeing their transformation – starting with an intangible yet interesting idea that became a challenging problem that they committed to solving and making strong enough for XPRIZE.”

Swaine-Simon adds that the four were very motivated from the beginning by the mission around AI and mental health.

The XPRIZE has helped accelerate the dialogue around AI for Good by providing concrete proof points of human and machine collaboration.

‘District 3 is where we grew up’

Benrimoh, co-founder and chief scientific officer, says the competition structure nicely matched the process of building a new company.

“XPRIZE was focused on doing things in an ethical way that was sustainable and helped people with minimal harm. It really helped us structure our growth – as a company and for defining our value proposition,” he explains.

“We made it through a very rigorous peer review process that helped us establish ourselves in Montreal and be recognized globally.”

As for the role District 3 played along the way, Benrimoh calls the innovation hub a fantastic home base.

“District 3 is where we grew up, where we learned how to run a business and build a team, and it continues to be a vital partner in our development.”

“I think District 3 was a perfect sounding board for us in every aspect of the company’s development,” adds Marina Massingham, chief executive officer.

“Whenever we had challenges – HR, business or competition-related – we had the proper support that we needed to overcome those hurdles. So as XPRIZE kept going, we kept growing alongside it.”

Massingham, who originally connected with Aifred Health through District 3’s network, especially appreciates the support from coaches and mentors through MentorConnect.

“They really push me to challenge myself and my thinking. And they are also a perfect sounding board. It can be very isolating as a CEO. When issues arise, I can turn to them for advice and bounce ideas off them,” she says.

For the Aifred team, the priority has always been to solve the challenge in treatment selection for depression.

“District 3 helped us take our well-defined problem and the AI model solution to predict what treatment would be best for a patient,” Benrimoh says.

The future of Aifred Health

Massingham notes they are already excited about what will happen beyond XPRIZE. Aifred is headed into clinical trials this year, a first for this type of technology in the world.

“We’re at the point where the hard work that has been done since the inception of Aifred Health will be proven in a clinical setting – an essential step to making this technology available to patients. If we are successful, next we will look to get regulatory approval to commercialize our AI model,” she says

Both are eager to get their product into the hands of clinicians who can use it to support their patients and drive better outcomes for people with major depression. They also hope to move into other areas of mental health.

“We’re so happy to have participated in XPRIZE and to be a top 3 finalist. There’s a lot to look forward to as we continue to build Aifred Health.”

Learn more about Concordia’s District 3 Innovation Hub and mentorship opportunities at MentorConnect.

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