breastIT revolutionizes breast cancer screening with a glove
David Mwesigwa and Moris Atwine have developed a glove that produces ultrasound images of the insight of the breast and transmitts them via phone for analysis.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
David: Passionate, curious. And eventful.
Moris: Self-determined, goal-oriented and a dreamer.
How did you come up with the idea for your startup? What was the inspiration?
Moris: In 2013, I lost a close relative to breast cancer. After my loss, I started thinking about how we could use what we are studying to help reduce breast cancer. And not only breast cancer. I thought of how we could help battling diseases that were around us in our community.
When I first talked to David about this I told him: „Look, here’s the thing. We are studying technology and learning all about new technological developments and tools. How can we use what we are studying and come up with a solution to fight diseases by using the technology that we are using in our studies?“ Of course, I was driven by the fact that I had lost family members to breast cancer and my main aim was to develop a solution to fight this deadly disease. We had a lot of conversations and ideas and started doing research.
In September 2014, we completed our research phase around different ideas and came up with a solution that I would say was our final one. We looked at it from different perspectives, from the technological side, of course, but also from the medical side and we came to the conclusion that this could actually work. We then started our official research on this solution and started drafting our prototype.
Along the way we met Alvin, who is our engineer. And we also met Cosmas who is mostly advising us on ultrasound technology. And that is the current team.
The idea that you called your “final idea“ earlier, was that already the product you are working on now? What were the first steps you took after you had this initial idea?
David: When Moris approached me about the issue on how to tackle different diseases in our community and we narrowed it down to breast cancer, we kept thinking around different ideas. We had one idea to use a barcode scanner, like the ones in supermarkets, using light to scan the breast. But we very quickly realized that light won’t give us the results that we wanted. Then we thought of ultrasound. The actual idea of the glove that we are now working on came one day between classes when we were sitting in the parking lot. The basic idea was to create something flexible, portable, something that can be moved around and doesn’t have to be fixed to a station. Something like for example a glove. And there it was.
Once we came up with the idea of the glove we talked to Alvin, our hardware engineer, about it and he said yes, it is possible. He wanted to do some research on the technical components and how to connect them and wanted to get back to us. Which he did, obviously.
How did you come up with the name breastIT?
David: I never really thought about how we came up with the name. We thought about a name and breastIT was there very quickly. Somehow, it just fit.
Moris: For me it all comes down to what our product is about and the original questions behind it: How can we use IT to tackle breast cancer. I guess, that is as easy as it gets.
You are currently developing the prototype. What were first challenges that you faced so far? Was there a moment when you thought it was not going to work out?
David: There are two parts of the project that we need to take into consideration: The hardware and the software. With the hardware our major challenge was research. Coming from a country like Uganda there are not many people who are experienced in this field. Your options are very limited as you cannot really consult anyone. You have to do everything by yourself, you need to read a lot of research papers and books and see how far others have maybe come. And to be honest, this research process took us a lot longer than we had initially expected to get where we are now. Once we had finished our research we consulted with Alvin, our designer, and he started developing the product.
Another problem was – and still is – around the single components of the product. Again, in Uganda you cannot get all the components that are necessary in local shops or markets. So we had to look for companies abroad and have them ship the components we couldn’t get locally. The difficult part about getting pieces from here and there: You need to wait until the shipment arrives only to then find out that one piece doesn’t fit or doesn’t work. And then you have to do it again, look for other companies to send you pieces and so on. It was very tough in the beginning. But as we continued our work, we met more and more people – people in our building, in the Tech World and in the Ultrasound Scene – things got easier in time.
Moris: And I need to add one more challenge: production. Once you figure out how your components come together in a prototype, you actually need to produce it. Again, being in Uganda there is no high tech manufacturer around who can build this type of product, yet.
Regarding the software, since we use machine learning we had and still have to teach ourselves on how to test the different custom algorithms for diagnosing the datasets of breast cancer. There is nobody in Uganda who has this kind of knowledge. We had to first learn machine learning by ourselves.
Furthermore, we had to get data from a cancer institute that our machine would be using as a basis for its learning process. And again expertise on how to do this was something we did not find locally and we had to teach ourselves.
Was there a highlight moment along your journey so far? A moment you will never forget?
Moris: I think our first highlight moment was at the Annual Communication Innovation Awards in Uganda in 2014. It was just after we had figured out the idea of creating a glove and we had just put the hardware components and software pieces together in a prototypish glove. There were wires sticking out of it and it looked not pretty but it was basically functioning. And with this we were listed for the Annual Communication Innovation Awards in the People’s Choice category. And we won. We couldn’t believe it.
David: And we were also awarded Best Exhibitor. Everybody wanted to know what we were doing and there was this energy around our glove. It was a very successful day for us.
Your product is going to help mostly women. What is your understanding of female empowerment and how do you, as male founders, contribute to female empowerment?
Moris: We are working in an area where women are mostly affected, yes. And women who are diagnosed with breast cancer usually face treatment, such as chemotherapy, and that brings along many challenges for them. They need to attend therapy, which is time consuming but most importantly it affects their bodies and spirit. This has effects on their work, they need to take time off and most likely the quality of work also gets influenced by the disease and its treatment. To me, it is therefore very simple: If we can optimize breast cancer detection and have women diagnosed at a much earlier stage, we could spare them all that struggle if they can be treated earlier.
David: Empowering women can happen in many different ways. In our context, in a technological context, we are creating a technological tool with our knowledge and expertise giving women a chance to live. I keep saying, you cannot empower someone who is not there. So helping women to get an early diagnosis and helping them to have a chance against this deadly disease gives them a chance to live. And who knows, maybe one of these women who we helped to live will find a cure for cancer.
You are a team of male founders. Do you plan on bringing women on board?
Moris: Yes. It is very crucial to our business to have women on board. And I learned even more how crucial by being part of this accelerator program. We need to exchange information with women to learn more about – and this might sound very trivial – their breast. There are simply things we cannot relate to being men and we need female understanding of the topic that we have chosen to work in. For example, does our glove actually work on different sizes of breasts, does it capture the entire inner part of the breast? We need to make sure that our product is suitable for different types of bodies. So for me it is very clear that we need a woman on board.
Do you have a tip for other male founders on how they can use tech knowledge to contribute into a social project that is specifically aiming at solving female problems?
David: I work by a saying: Do not push the dust under the carpet. It is not going to vanish. If you see a problem, try and clean it up, try to solve it. And that applies to any kind of business. For us it was clear, we want to use our expertise and knowledge for a good cause.
What are the next steps for breastIT?
Moris: In the next five years we want to make sure that around 40% of women in Uganda get screened for breast cancer and actually also educate them what breast cancer is. And this brings along a whole new challenge: How do we communicate the necessity for breast cancer screening? How do we communicate about breast cancer because many women, especially in rural areas in Uganda and Africa in general, don’t know about breast cancer?
So the next steps for us would be: Getting the product out there and start marketing it. And at the same time educate women on breast cancer and why they should do a screening on a regular basis.
When speaking about educating women about breast cancer – isn’t that a huge task you have to fulfil? And how are you going to tackle it?
Moris: Our whole mission runs around improving breast cancer screening and communicating around it. In 2016 and 2017 we have actually done two digital campaigns trying to spread the message on how important breast cancer screening is and that there actually is screening technology available. For the first campaign we used mainly Social Media and we created a hashtag for the campaigns #eachonereachone. But, of course, there is only a certain percentage of people of Social Media so we were then thinking of how to reach everybody else.
In 2017 we went a little further and partnered with a hospital in Kampala, a local basketball team and a local breast cancer support organization. For each of these partners we had a different objective. We had certain statements created for each of the partners and we made sure that the person who would be the campaign face would continue to say these statements in official events. And we will continue doing these types of campaigns in the future.
Thank you so much for taking the time for this Interview.