Siegrid Pregartner and Laura Borgerding are quick to note they are non-traditional pharmacology doctoral students; Pregartner is an Army veteran and mother of two, while Borgerding is a former middle school teacher.
The two also recently launched a startup, Janus AI, and designed an AI tool that aids in the early detection of Alzheimer’s. Their focus is to provide patients suffering from the disease more time to make healthcare decisions before the disease hijacks their mental acuity and motor skills.
The USF Health Taneja College of Pharmacy students have personal experience with Alzheimer’s and dementia. Together, they decided to utilize AI capabilities to ease other families’ burdens and better prepare them for the inevitable.
“The goal of the software is it will be easy enough for physicians to use,” began Pregartner. “In fact, I’m hoping that the physician has to do zero input – it will just be a pop-up that identifies patients at the highest risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease in the next couple of years.”
Rather than typical clinical or commercial pharmacy classes, they take courses focusing on pharmacogenomics and healthcare economics and entrepreneurship. The latter, taught by Dr. Kevin Olson, featured an artificial intelligence (AI) specialist that Borgerding said opened her eyes to its possibilities in the medical industry.
Pregartner noted that Alzheimer’s causes changes to the brain three to five years before more noticeable symptoms. The hope is that Janus AI can detect those impacts sooner.
Borgerding explained that emerging research shows biomarkers can identify the disease earlier through cerebral spinal fluid and blood. While the two plan to keep a keen eye on new findings, Pregartner said Janus AI is meant to be noninvasive and utilize previously-collected patient information and health records.
A computer program, she explained, typically uses algorithms to crunch numbers and solve equations. Conversely, developers teach AI to find patterns, like those found in patients with early-onset dementia.
“And eventually, it’s so good at extrapolating the data – beyond what humans can comprehend and what algorithms can do,” said Pregartner. “So, if we train the model appropriately, it will find the patterns we cannot find.”
That process, added Borgerding, is more practical and efficient than a specialist combing through each patient’s medical charts and trying to determine if a patient is more susceptible to Alzheimer’s disease.
She believes Janus AI could also give physicians more time to prescribe the correct medications that slow the disease’s progression, something not afforded to her grandmother. In the future, Borgerding said early detection could also provide a window for patients while researchers develop treatments to reverse symptoms.
The platform’s efficiency could also save healthcare and insurance providers money, which the two said aided their pitch at the Florida Blue Health Innovation Challenge in May. Their healthcare startup placed first in the competition and won $15,000.
The Innovation Challenge was the first time either doctoral student pitched their company and product. Pregartner called the win a complete shock, while Borgerding admitted she cried.
The competition’s director, Pregartner relayed, advised that they consider their audience. She realized the judges were potential customers and expounded how Janus AI could save money for patients and insurance providers.
“That’s ultimately what I believe won us the competition,” said Pregartner. “Because we focus on how we are improving patient outcomes and reducing health care burdens on everyone.”
Following the win – and after pitching Janus AI to local business leaders and university officials – the two gained acceptance to USF Connect, a premier tech and design incubator. The pair now has office space for their startup, a much-needed software mentor and guidance from other entrepreneurs.
The $15,000 in prize money serves as initial funding for Janus AI, while Pregartner said she has some ability to bootstrap the platform. However, she noted that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) provides around $2 billion annually for Alzheimer’s research.
The co-founders plan to focus on grant applications before looking into seed funding, and technology patents are pending.
In addition to their doctoral pursuits and launching a health tech startup, the pair work part-time. Borgerding is also working on her Master’s in pharmaceutical nanotechnology, while Pregartner has a supportive husband and two young boys at home.
They both expressed that their accomplishments are only possible with the help of an “extremely proud” dean, Dr. Kevin Sneed, and professors like Olson, Dr. Carol Fox and Dr. Teresa Ho.
“That’s something that keeps driving us forward,” said Borgerding. “If we didn’t have that kind of support, we wouldn’t be able to do this and finish our program at the same time.”