AIQ Solutions gives oncologists a clear picture
When Dona Alberti worked as a nurse at the University of Wisconsin Hospital’s Carbone Cancer Center, she spent many hours sitting with cancer patients after their oncology appointments. One question that patients often asked was: Is the treatment really working?
Late-stage cancer patients can develop multiple forms of the disease as the cancer spreads, and it’s hard to determine if the treatment is successfully beating back one cancer but sidestepping another. UW medical oncologist Dr. Glenn Liu decided to seek a solution. He joined forces with UW medical physicist Dr. Robert Jeraj and Alberti, and they recruited Guy Starbuck, a software architect at Yahara Software and Stericycle.
Together, they founded AIQ Solutions in Madison in 2015. Their goal: Create a new, faster, and more comprehensive way to analyze multiple radiological images at one time.
“We wanted to create software that would give physicians more information to manage a cancer patient more effectively,” Alberti says.
Monitoring treatment throughout the body
AIQ Solutions does not use biopsies. Instead, it takes radiologic images from computed tomography (CT ) and positron emission tomography (PET) scans of lesions in patients with metastatic cancer and identifies changes in each area. A detailed report helps oncologists pinpoint which cancers are responding to treatment.
The technology is the result of 15 years of research at the UW by AIQ founders Jeraj, Liu, Alberti, Starbuck, and “an army of Ph.D. students,” says Eric Horler, who joined AIQ as president and CEO in late 2018.
AIQ’s mission is specifically aimed at advanced cancer patients. “If there’s only one tumor, it’s easy for a radiologist to track. We had a patient recently with more than 400 lesions. A radiologist only has a few minutes to conduct an analysis and try to determine if some of the disease is resistant to treatment,” Horler says.
AIQ’s TRAQinform IQ technology displays changes to all of the areas with cancer, using three-dimensional images that guide oncologists to the most effective treatments. The process results in personalized medicine.
“We’re not developing a predictive model, which can be right or wrong. We’re actually looking at that individual patient’s very real response to treatment. Then you know if you need to make a change, and you will have more confidence that the change can have a beneficial impact,” Horler says.
Hospitals begin using TRAQinform IQ
Several U.S. hospitals—including UW Hospital—began using AIQ’s technology in the past year, as did two additional sites in Australia. The pilot projects are amassing data on the benefits of the technology, and AIQ hopes to have insurance and Medicare reimbursement in place by late 2025. So far, it’s been cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use in monitoring cancers in the lungs, prostate, bladder, head and neck, and neuroendocrine system, as well as for lymphoma and melanoma.
The company has three patents held by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation and licensed to AIQ, and three more patents pending; The Tech Tribune has named AIQ Solutions one of the best tech startups in Madison. AIQ has about 30 employees and has raised $14 million so far, primarily from Wisconsin investors, including Capital Midwest Fund, Rock River Capital Partners, and 30Ventures.
In addition, AIQ Solutions has been awarded nearly $2.7 million in Small Business Innovation Research Grants from the National Cancer Institute and the Center for Technology Commercialization, and $17,000 in Global Business Development Grants from WEDC. “The initial WEDC grant helped us get into Australia,” Alberti says. The company has received a $500,000 Technology Development Loan from WEDC, and investors have received $1.3 million in tax credits due to the company's participation in the Qualified New Business Venture Program. AIQ also was awarded $35,000 through the We're All Innovating contest in 2020.
AIQ wants its technology to become part of the guidelines for treating cancer. “We want this to be a standard of care,” Horler says.
He credits the UW’s medical physics department for its wealth of research and knowledge. It is the largest in the U.S., he says: “Things can be done here and nowhere else. If our founders weren’t at the UW, we wouldn’t have been able to achieve this.”