With the intention to improve TB detection in rural areas, Hyderabad-based startup Salcit Technologies has launched Swaasa, an AI software that analyses human cough to help detect lung diseases.
What if you cough on to a smartphone, and it tells you the health of your lungs? Sounds like an invention from the future, right? But this Hyderabad-based startup has made it a reality.
Claiming an accuracy of 90 per cent, Swaasa is an artificial intelligence-based software that analyses human coughs to identify any kind of abnormality in the lungs. With the help of additional data such as the patients’ medical history, temperature and vitals, the software helps in the early detection of lung infections and diseases.
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Launched in 2017 by a trio of techies — Venkat Yechuri, Narayana Rao Sripada and Manmohan Jain — Salcit Technologies realised the need for an AI-based sound analysis system that caters to lung health specifically.
“Right during the time the idea was in its formation stage, we realised its potential and need. We were enthralled by what it could mean for the healthcare sector,” says Manmohan, co-founder of Salcit technologies, to The Better India.
The platform has conducted over 3 lakh assessments so far with partners such as Apollo, Piramal Swasthaya, Andhra Medical College; Visakhapatnam and AIIMS; Delhi.
Behind the interface
Manmohan and Venkat were friends who worked for software company Zensar Technologies, while the brain behind the idea, Narayana, was invited to be an advisor to a project sponsored by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology.
“During the project, I met with PhD students and scholars who were researching heart and lung sounds. We started with the acoustics of heart and lung sounds and subsequently narrowed it down to cough sounds to determine the prevalence of underlying disorders,” Narayana says.
“During a conversation with Dr Ananta Krishnan from AIIMS, I became convinced that there is an unmet need for screening software, especially in rural areas. It is practically impossible to set up a spirometry test (a pulmonary function test) in remote and rural health centres. We needed an easy-to-install method to determine lung health. This became the driving force behind Swaasa,” he explains.
With Venkat and Manmohan on board, Narayana soon quit his job and founded Salcit technologies in 2017. On how the software works, he explains, “To know how healthy your lungs are, you have to cough on to your mobile phone. The software uses imaging sound waves to analyse the cough and within 15 seconds, it will show possible abnormalities in the lungs. If there are any, one can visit a specialist.”
Venkat explains further, “The cough bouts are symmetric for asthma while for pneumonia they progressively increase. So the bright yellow spots or energy remains consistent in the case of asthma but drops with time in pneumonia. Our approach is deeply rooted in cough physics.”
“The concept of cough as a biomarker to determine health issues has been there for decades. But not many people have leveraged that information to make a product out of it,” Narayana says.
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While there are technologies like Google Fit that also determine a person’s health and check their vitals, there is nothing dedicated to lung health specifically, which is what makes their approach unique, Narayana points out. “We are like the Google Photos of respiratory diseases.”
Bigger aim: Improving rural healthcare
With six clinical validations including from the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation, Swaasa is now being used by PHCs in Visakhapatnam and aims to reach those in rural areas.
“We want to make sure that the technology gains the trust of users. While India has a great programme for tuberculosis eradication, a 2019 survey shows that we are still missing two out of three symptomatic patients. If we want to reach all of them, we have to triple the investments in terms of labs, manpower etc which is not feasible. This is where Swaasa comes in. The software on the phone can reach the remotest of places,” explains Narayana.
Manmohan adds, “We want to reach places where there is a lack of quality healthcare. Respiratory health is neglected in rural areas and by the time a patient reaches the doctor, it is often too late. We strongly believe that we can prevent deaths due to respiratory illnesses in India.”
Roadmap for the future
The startup has received funding from USAID through its partner IP Global for third-party validation.
The company aspires to reach five million assessments and as many countries as possible in the future.
“We plan to collaborate with state governments to make the software available to the public at large in rural areas. We are also planning to reach countries like Nigeria, Kenya, Bangladesh etc. We will go through insurance and pharmacy companies for developed companies,” says Manmohan. “We also hope to expand our horizons and include analyses of breath sounds. We want to be the go-to place for audiometric analyses.”
“In terms of science, we would like to develop the software to detect more diseases. We don’t have any institutional funding other than grants. This year we are looking to fundraise so that we can achieve all the above-mentioned goals,” says Venkat.
Edited by Asha Prakash