University of Toronto startup Winterlight created a revolutionary platform that uses speech patterns to pinpoint signs of brain disorders.
Hidden clues in the way you speak can indicate health problems long before an official diagnosis is made. These include how fast you talk, how long you pause, which words you choose—even tiny wobbles in the vibration of your voice, too subtle for the human ear.
University of Toronto graduate student Katie Fraser discovered hundreds of speech and language markers for neurological health. She co-founded WinterLight Labs with colleagues at the Department of Computer Science, Liam Kaufman, Maria Yancheva and Assistant Professor Frank Rudzicz. With combined expertise in linguistics and machine learning, their team has built a tool right here in Toronto that uses artificial intelligence to monitor speech patterns of patients and look for signs of cognitive decline. Indications are that it can pinpoints early signs of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia with very high precision.
“Speech and language are among the most accurate lenses into somebody’s state of mind,” says Rudzicz.
An estimated 50 million people around the world suffer from dementia, according to the World Health Organization. So it’s little surprise WinterLight has already received considerable interest from operators of senior care residences and big pharmaceutical companies. At the beginning of 2019, WinterLight entered into an agreement with Johnson & Johnson to develop a digital biomarker for the diagnosis of early-stage Alzheimer’s. Ultimately, the WinterLight team hopes its unique technology will greatly improve the way we detect and track brain diseases like Alzheimer’s, which contributes to as many as 70 per cent of cases.
The team credits U of T’s strong entrepreneurial ecosystem with helping them get where they are today.
“I think the size, the breadth, and the reach of the University of Toronto is one of its main strengths,” says Rudzicz. “There is a massive community of people that can help develop your business, from the accelerators we’ve worked with to the research expertise in a variety of areas. It’s been a wonderful experience, talking with a lot of people about our technology and refining our business model, and that took us to a place where we’ve become a legitimate and strong business. It’s all because of the U of T community.”
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