As a Republic of Korea Marine Corps rifleman who underwent rigorous training as part of his National Service, Kevin Choi had «no doubts» about his medical condition.
«I have pretty severe myopia, but I still believed I was very healthy,» Choi told CNBC Make It.
But that all changed in 2016, when he discovered he had glaucoma, a chronic and progressive eye disease caused by damage to the optic nerve.
While glaucoma is more common in older people, Choi was only 26 when he was diagnosed.
By then, Choi said he had already lost half of his vision in his right eye and only had about «60% to 70%» of his vision left in his left eye. – which could have been avoided with early detection.
But that same year, he overcame those adversities by launching his own healthcare startup, Mediwhale.
Its devices assess cardiovascular risk through the use of retinal imaging and artificial intelligence — a first of its kind, Mediwhale told CNBC Make It.
With a seed capital of $5,000, he launched the startup with his eye doctor, Dr. Tyler Hyungtaek Rim six years ago.
Today, the company said it has raised millions from investors, with its devices approved in the EU and several countries in Asia.
How did an advanced diagnosis of glaucoma inspire Choi to start his own business? CNBC Make It finds out.
A faster alternative
Choi, who is the CEO of Mediwhale, said he firmly believed his diagnosis was «not a coincidence».
As an industrial engineer by training, he started thinking about possible AI solutions that could improve the early detection of diseases.
«There must be a reason why this happened to me. And I think I could solve this problem myself, because I’m an engineer,» said the 31-year-old.
As a physician, Rim also understood the “unmet needs” in clinical settings for the detection of cardiovascular disease, usually performed by computerized tomography.
«CT scans are resource-intensive and time-consuming, so it’s a burden on healthcare providers and patients alike,» he added.
Choi’s own experience with «long patient journeys», referring to the time between a patient queuing at a hospital and getting test results from doctors – also prompted him to design a faster alternative.
«The long patient journey is a big hurdle to overcome. Even now, I feel very anxious every time I go to the hospital for glaucoma exams…it’s a long test with a two-hour wait. at three o’clock [for results].»
Mediwhale claims that with just one retinal photograph per eye, it achieves the «same accuracy» in detecting cardiovascular risk as a CT scan, while providing reports to patients «within one minute».
«It only takes a few seconds because it doesn’t require any expansion. The image is simultaneously uploaded to the cloud system when taken and automatically analyzed by our AI,» Rim explained.
Convince the doctors
The biggest challenge the founders faced was convincing other doctors that the eyes really could be «the window to the whole body,» Choi said.
«The eyes are the only organs in the body where you can see the blood vessels without any invasive measurements,» Rim added.
«Changes in the microvascular structure of your retina…have been identified as strong predictors of blood vessel-related diseases, such as cardiovascular and kidney problems, because the changes often occur long before you even notice some important symptoms» , explained Rim.
For Choi, finding your «reason» and purpose is key to overcoming challenges, both in life and in business.
Knowing that his glaucoma could have been detected earlier keeps him on his mission, he said, of preventing more people from detecting diseases when it’s «too late».
“Maybe for someone else who is also confident about their health…a simple eye scan could be life changing.”