A Chat with Jonas Muff, CEO at AI Breast Cancer Screening Platform: Vara

Vara’s mission is to make data-driven breast cancer screening accessible to everyone, everywhere. To this end, we’ve built an intelligent platform that infuses state-of-the-art artificial intelligence into routine breast screenings, and we partner globally with healthcare entrepreneurs and providers to bring a data-driven, standardised breast cancer screening approach to the countries that need it most.

Better breast cancer screening is every woman’s right, yet millions are being left behind by a lack of effective, organised programmes. Of the 700,000 global deaths caused by breast cancer each year, ~70% occur in low and middle income countries. In part due to the inability to diagnose early caused by a lack of technology, awareness and of specialised screening radiologists.

By mitigating much of the human subjectivity associated with reading mammography results — and reducing the repetitive work radiologists are routinely subjected to — we’re making such screenings more effective, more personal, and more accessible. Regardless of the infrastructure already in place. This approach allows us to provide high-quality healthcare focused on delivering the best, measurable outcomes for women everywhere.
 
 

 

What do you think makes this company unique?

 
Our technology, our approach, our clinical experience and our mindset make Vara unique.

Firstly, Vara is not just an algorithm, it’s a full-stack platform. It incorporates AI and automation into every step of the breast cancer screening workflow. It consolidates the previously fragmented processes in one place and does so in a way focused on improving efficiency, enabling remote collaboration and democratising access to better screening programmes.

Secondly, Vara AI takes a complementary, rather than competing approach to radiologists. Other AI solutions have centred on one-size-fits-all models to replace radiologists. Such approaches have been shown to be lacking. Instead, our Decision Referral Pathway supports radiologists. It pre-screens normal mammograms, pre-fills structured reports, and post-screens mammograms for potentially missed exams, all with very high confidence. We finetune the way the AI and individual radiologists interact to optimise for joint performance, while enabling screening radiologists to focus their attention on potentially suspicious exams.

Thirdly, the Vara platform captures real-world data in clinical use. Vara was developed with screening radiologists in one of the world’s leading population-based national breast cancer screening programmes in Germany. It has been trained and evaluated on more than 7 million images to date – one of the largest datasets of its kind globally – and our AI is continuously monitored to provide screening radiologists with key performance metrics. For each woman diagnosed via Vara, we follow the patient pathway after screening to assess AI’s impact on population health metrics such as recall rates, biopsy scores and mortality.

Finally, we are challenging the status quo of healthcare. We believe in personal accountability, flat hierarchies, direct and transparent communication, and a culture of respect. This mindset and team culture has enabled us to build, establish and scale our full-stack platform in just under three years.
 

 

How has the company evolved over the last couple of years?

 
The Vara AI platform’s decision referral approach is now in use in 30% of all screening units in Germany. As part of our global mission, we recently launched screening units in Mexico and Greece, in partnership with healthcare providers on the ground in those regions. With such partners, we are showing how we can leverage existing healthcare infrastructure to enable them to leapfrog their current set-up to a state-of-the-art, standardised screening service.

Our team has doubled to 30 and we have appointed global experts in radiology, such as Professor Katja Pinker-Domenig, who became our Lead Medical Advisor, as well as Stephan Dreier as Chief Revenue Officer. We also have collaborations with renowned academic institutions in the US and Europe, such as Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, University of Cambridge, Karolinska Institute and the Cancer Registry of Norway.

Notably, Vara’s AI performance is showing promise in terms of reproducibility and generalisation. We have two important peer-review publications under review, both large retrospective studies, and we just started Germany’s first-ever prospective study to show Vara’s impact in the clinical routine.
 

What can we hope to see from Vara in the future?

 
In the next four years, we aim to launch 1,000 screening centres in countries that currently do not offer screening. Together with partners, this involves scaling our platform further across Latin America while seeking new partnerships with healthcare providers in other geographies.

We have, and will continue to deepen our AI’s capabilities by developing it to not only read the current mammography exam, but to also review prior examinations for even more performance gains. This will help us in our long-term vision to catch every deadly breast cancer early.