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VocDec: On the path to improve autism diagnostics

The team-members of VocDec are students of the Digital Health MSc programme, who are already implementing their ideas into life by building their own startup. Ambitious project is called to enable the diagnosis of the autistic spectrum disorder in the first days of life of the infant via cry-patterns analysis. This will accelerate the treatment and make it more efficient by gradually improving patients’ quality of life.
Get a glimpse behind the scenes of the startup in the interview with the CEO of VocDec Rob Schubert.

VocDec Team

The concept and theoretical basis of the project

We participated in the first TalTech Digital health hackathon in December 2019, where we were encouraged to come up with a digital solution to existing healthcare issues. One of our team-members Fereshteh Farahani suggested a topic of cry acoustics in a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), since she has already looked into it before, during the Introduction to E-Health, one of the previous TalTech courses. We instantly liked the idea and thought it had so much potential.
The theoretical base of our project lies in the scientific body of knowledge in the field of autism diagnostic criteria and more specifically in the notion about the difference between the cry signal waves of healthy babies and those with autism, coming from the earlier research.
During the hackathon we used the publications on the topic and thought to develop this idea and create an algorithm to organise the acoustic differences in order to build a system able to screen the babies’ cries for the autistic feature.

Importance of the early diagnosis

Currently diagnosing ASD can be difficult because there is no medical test, like a blood test, to diagnose the disorder. Instead, doctors look at the child’s developmental history and behavior to make a diagnosis. Parents may notice some difference in child’s behavior but normally they don’t pay too close attention and ascribe it to the slower development due to individual peculiarities of their child. Therefore, on average autism is diagnosed between the age of 4–7, which is rather late considering the importance of early autism diagnosis in order to allow a child to receive the treatment timely and have an opportunity to catch up with the set of skills their typically developing peers have already acquired. In this respect, cry acoustic approach could help to solve the issue by offering a diagnosis starting from the first weeks of a child’s life. Therefore, once developed, the diagnosis method itself will represent a unique product on the market.

Working with the cry patterns

Cry patterns are considered medical data and therefore are legally protected. In order to obtain the right to use such samples we need an approval from the Research Ethics Committee of the National Institute for Health Development. Nevertheless, we have already started a conversation about our project with some hospitals and organisations in Estonia.

At the informal team meeting

It’s all about the team

Currently we are four main team-members with quite a diverse background.
Feresteh Farahani studied Computer Networks Technology during her Bachelor’s in Iran and has worked in the IT department of a hospital. It sparked her interest to combine her IT skills with the healthcare field and so she moved to Estonia to continue her education in digital health.

Marju Tomson is also a student of the Digital Health Master’s program in TalTech. Besides that, she brings her previous professional background in finances to the team and shares our common passion towards digital innovation in healthcare.

Karin Kõnd graduated from the Master’s programme in Biomedical Science at Tartu University and has worked many years in the field of diagnostics, which helps to understand the difficulties that the current disease has.

Finally myself (Rob), I graduated from Creative Technology at HAN University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. Creative technology is all about analyzing systems to see processes where improvement can be done by digitalization. During and even before my studies I did various part-time jobs in a hospital and eventually became curious if I could implement my technical knowledge in the medical setting. And so, I have made my research and found the Digital Health programme in Estonia. In my Bachelor’s I came across the information about Estonia being this digital society and actually where can you learn more about digital health than here?
Now, studying here and being actively involved with the startups I really understand I am living in the entrepreneurial digital country. Every day in different settings I meet people who are part of the same process and we can share our stories, experiences and ideas with each other.

European Institute for Innovation & Technology (EIT)

We were selected out of 96 teams as Top-24 healthcare startups by European Institute for Innovation & Technology (EIT) Jumpstarter program, this resulted in a summer full of interesting bootcamps. After the bootcamp round we were selected into the Top-15 and attended local training in Tartu Delta center. And recently we have successfully entered the next round of the competition of the top 6 startups and now we can enter the final stage of the program to raise some seed funding to continue with the project.
Jumpstarter programme of the EIT is awarded as the best startup incubator in the world, that’s why we are very honoured to be selected. All of this is so exciting, since we didn’t realize that everyone had so much faith in our project, and now we get to meet and have consultations with all those outstanding professionals from all over Europe. That’s a truly valuable experience and we are actively preparing and looking forward to the Grand Final.

Ülemiste City Health Founders Incubator

Health Founders Incubator

Another positive piece of news is that starting from October we have joined the Health Founders Incubator, a new accelerator programme in Ülemiste City currently working with the 6 best healthcare startups in Estonia. They have provided us with the coworking space, mentoring programme as well as an opportunity to take part in multiple events — workshops, meetups etc. We are very excited to have access to this really valuable network and knowledge base. Since most other startups-participants are further in their development than we are it gives us an opportunity to learn a lot from them and hopefully to avoid some of the common mistakes. TalTech and Ülemiste Health Founders are two of the greatest knowledge hubs in Estonia and we are so lucky to be in the epicenter of both.

Financial relevance for public health sector worldwide

As mentioned, currently the earliest diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder takes place between the age of 4 -7 years, but often happens even later. VocDec plans to be able to diagnose ASD in the very beginning of the infant’s life. Earlier diagnosis will make it possible to also perform the treatment in an earlier stage of life, which results in less severe levels of ASD in patients. Here are some of the facts that are supported by the research:

● Early interventions for ASD are more likely to have major long-term positive effects on symptoms and later skills
● Child’s brain is still forming, meaning it is more “plastic” or changeable
● Symptoms may reduce up to normal status

When it comes to translating early diagnosis into numbers the calculation provided by Duke center for Autism and brain development comes handy. According to the centre, early intervention could lead to savings up to €1 million per patient in lifetime saving costs. If you would count these numbers for the amount of autistic patients born every year the total savings are adding up quite significantly. (You can calculate it yourself using the numbers provided by statistical agencies:

Estonia: 85 people/year
Germany: 2994 people/year
Europe: 42, 000 people/year
Worldwide: 881,250 people/year

Besides, the prevalence (new patients born) of autism is growing every year. So we should not underestimate the dimensions and the cost of this disease.
Nevertheless, although the financial side is important, what counts more for us is the opportunity to raise the quality of life of each individual patient by providing them with early diagnosis.

Further steps and nearest future

We understand it is a serious long-term project and it will take several years until we can properly function. Nevertheless, we are all very committed and excited to work on VocDec’s development, because of its enormous potential and the impact it can have both on the individual and societal level. We realize that with VocDec we can improve the health care system worldwide and it gives us a lot of motivation.
Our upcoming agenda includes a data collection and building a prototype. What will happen next year already, then we can find the funding and start to develop the eventual product. We are taking it step by step, we have good planning and support from both TalTech and external organisations to make it happen. It is very inspiring when knowledgeable and professional people in the fields share the same excitement about our idea that we have ourselves. It gives us so much energy and strength to go ahead.

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Svitlana Kharchenko

Immigrant and traveler. Info yoga and all things sustainable. Foreign languages and countries enthusiast.