Changemakers: Rakesh Mathur

Serial entrepreneur whose latest venture uses artificial intelligence to detect cancer earlier

By Emma Broomfield 17 May 2019

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Jay Watson

In 1969, a 13-year-old Rakesh Mathur sat awestruck as he watched the grainy footage of Neil Armstrong landing on the moon on his family’s television set.

“Witnessing that was transformational for me, a boy growing up in Bombay,” recalls Mathur. “It was something I latched onto and from there I became fascinated with science and technology and how it could change our lives.”

Fast forward almost 50 years and he is embarking on his own journey into uncharted territory. His giant leap for mankind involves finding a way for AI to detect cancer more accurately – and, crucially, earlier. No mean feat, but one that Mathur believes is entirely possible, having already dedicated much of his career – in Silicon Valley and beyond – to streamlining processes with the help of big data.

His optimistically named company Whiterabbit was launched in early 2017, with the aim of using AI to process an unlimited number of images of confirmed cancer cells and tumours which would then be used as a comparison during the screening of current patients.

“When you are using AI to solve a problem, the data becomes the most important thing. Training the system simply involves showing it a lot of examples,” he explains. “Fortunately, we’ve been given the exclusive rights to access cancer images and medical records from Washington University in St. Louis, one of the top fi ve medical schools in the US.” The deal was a coup and has enabled Whiterabbit to hit the ground running, establishing 10 clinics in California and Arizona and already helping thousands of patients.

The ambitious project has very personal origins for Mathur. While first looking into AI, he received news that his father had been diagnosed with stage-four cancer.

“I decided while we were looking after him at my home in California that I should do something to help others,” he says. “It all happened very quickly, but afterwards I decided I could make a difference to the early detection of cancer. So Whiterabbit was born,” he recalls.

To date, the company has focused on breast cancer data and screenings, hoping to perfect the model before moving into other areas.

“The current statistics for breast cancer aren’t great. In the US, 10% of women that are screened are called back, and of that group 42% of the cancers are caught,” says Mathur. “The level of accuracy Whiterabbit is operating at now is already higher than that.” Training data reveals they are finding cancer a year earlier than radiologists in 25% of cases.

That success rate hasn’t gone unnoticed by academics and business leaders and has helped the company raise US$30 million (£22 million) in capital funding to date to continue its vital work. Mathur remains typically modest about their success so far, but piquing the interest of investors and industry bigwigs is nothing new for him.

Having cut his tech teeth at the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay, he moved to the US to complete a masters in engineering at the University of Texas of Arlington. Silicon Valley was always the goal and by his mid-twenties he was employed at a tech firm there.

“Silicon Valley is all about making dreams into a process. It also struck me as one of those places where the most feared aren’t the billion-dollar companies. Those to look out for are the two kids in the garage with just an idea,” he says.

Stints working in India, where he got married, and then Boston followed, although the snowy weather and the pull of Silicon Valley meant he was back in sunny California by the mid-90s and at the helm of his fi rst proper company, Armedia, writing silicon chip designs. “We didn’t know how it would go,” he admits, “so I had an agreement with my wife that her career would be the meal ticket and I’d be the lottery ticket.”

‘In Silicon Valley the most feared aren’t the billion-dollar companies. Those to look out for are the two kids in the garage with just an idea’

He need not have worried. Armedia’s designs were quickly in high demand, and within two years the firm was acquired by electronics manufacturer Broadcom – the first of several successful exits for Mathur.

Next was Junglee, a shopping comparison site, which caught the attention of Amazon. Such validation from the biggest in the field was “extremely satisfying,” he admits. By year two, Amazon offered a multi-million pound buy-out and a role for its founder at its Seattle headquarters. He relished the chance to see the inner workings of Amazon, but within a year he returned to California again, keen to be back in the driving seat of a start-up. Success followed with the exits of Stratify, Snapstick and JustChalo, which was snapped up by Open Table in 2013. A year later his colouration tool, Droptool, was acquired by Dropbox. Mathur is quick to point out that there have been failures, too; times when he was simply too slow off the mark to make an impact.

Lessons have been heeded, but the ideas just keep on coming: “I guess I enjoy the journey with great people around me. Some have been lightbulb moments, but I would say an idea has many fathers and mothers.”

The lifelong serial entrepreneur remains at the helm of a handful of successful businesses, but Whiterabbit is the standout in his portfolio. By April this year he expects their cancer-screening clinics to launch an app in which patients can upload their own images and get an instant initial opinion, just one part of a plan to alleviate the “inhumanity” in the US medical system.

“Our mission is to eliminate suffering through early detection,” he says, “but also to change the way people are treated. Often when you’re no longer revenue-generating, you’re no longer a priority.”

Long term, Mathur believes Whiterabbit’s technology could be applied to all areas of medicine and, in a generation’s time, survival rates could be vastly improved.

He also admits the venture has changed him: “I definitely gauge success differently now. It’s much more inspiring to find a solution to a problem for the greater good than to work very hard and just make shareholders rich. There’s a very human heart to this company.”

For now the hard work continues. What started with a highly personal story of his father’s cancer has the potential to revolutionise healthcare for the masses. With so much at stake, how does he manage to switch off? “One of the things I learned from Amazon was, ‘Work hard, have fun, make history – two out of three is not an option’,” he laughs. “I slightly adapted that to, ‘Don’t work a single day in your life’.

“That’s something I still live by today, so my question would be, ‘Switch off from what?’”

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