A new spinout from the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, BirchAI, has landed $3.1 million in seed funding for its software to streamline customer support for healthcare companies.
The software summarizes and analyzes the contents of phone conversations between customers and representatives. The Seattle startup is focusing on medical device, pharmaceutical and insurance companies.
The startup aims to cover “those expensive calls where you have people spending a lot of time after the call documenting what they just did,” said CEO Kevin Terrell, in an interview with GeekWire.
In many healthcare companies, highly-trained employees spend as much time talking to patients and other customers as they do summarizing each interaction. BirchAI instead saves time by building a summary document after listening to the call. The employee can edit the document if needed.
“It’s an employee satisfaction opportunity, because they get rid of the work that they don’t want to do,” said Terrell. “It allows the employees to focus on the conversation more as well. So, ultimately: patient satisfaction.”
The trio had previously worked at SparkCognition, an AI-focused startup where Terrell led business development for healthcare, Liu was a research scientist, and Kawale was VP of customer success and partnerships.
Terrell and Liu had first met even earlier, when he was working in healthcare marketing at McKinsey & Company and she was seeking advice about the business side of tech while an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota.
Liu went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and math and a master’s degree in operations science. Before founding BirchAI she worked in Seattle at Facebook AI Research, where she was first author of a study on a now widely-used deep learning model, called RoBERTa.
“It was the first work that really showed equal-to-human or better on a number of NLP tasks,” said Terrell, referring to natural language processing, which applies computational methods to extract meaning from texts. Liu is an “NLP rock star,” said Terrell.
Both Terrell and Liu joined AI2 in 2020 as entrepreneurs in residence, where they hatched the idea for BirchAI.
“NLP had gotten to the point where it could start to address some of these complex unstructured problems in healthcare,” said Terrell, “There’s unstructured data everywhere in healthcare.”
That’s led a number of companies to apply NLP to areas such as medical records and billing. Amazon Comprehend Medical, for instance, provides a service to mine healthcare data from doctors’ notes, clinical trial reports, and patient health records. Seattle-based 98point6 uses NLP in its products to increase healthcare efficiency. Another Seattle-based startup Saykara, with software to document doctor-patient conversations, was acquired by Nuance in February.
BirchAI targets a unique segment of the healthcare market, said Terrell. “We haven’t seen anyone in this space doing what we’re doing right now. Which doesn’t mean there aren’t [companies] that kind of look similar.” Uniphore, for instance, makes tools to improve call center interactions.
BirchAI has two Fortune 500 customers, one in the medical device industry and the other an insurance company, and brought in “a couple hundred thousand dollars” in revenue last year, said Terrell.
The startup’s software can also analyze datasets of customer conversations for information such as product deficiencies. That’s a task well-suited for one of the company’s aims, which is to move into post-market surveillance for pharmaceutical companies, which are increasingly required to monitor the effects of products after approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Terrell recently moved to the Seattle area from Minneapolis, where he had also co-founded the small nonprofit, Start Reading Now, which helps low-income children accumulate a small library of books.
The new funds will enable BirchAI to expand and increase hiring. New engineers would ideally be in the Seattle area, said Terrell. “It really works to our advantage to have everyone in the room. But we’ll see,” he said. The company is currently based at AI2, which provided $500,000 in pre-seed funding for the company.
AI2’s incubator pairs entrepreneurs with technical co-founders to build AI startups and in 2020 announced a $10 million fund to fuel spinouts. Other recent AI spinouts include cell therapy company Modulus Therapeutics and MajorBoost, which aims to help medical providers deal with time-consuming calls to health insurance providers.
The name for BirchAI was inspired by the historical use of birch bark as a writing surface.