Alliance Health Networks tackles the low-hanging fruit of medicine and data

The combination of information technology and medicine has led to hundreds of startups and another round of excitement for modernizing the way we diagnose patients, track illness and even administer care. There are efforts to build a tricorder, plans to track millions of people’s heartbeats to create a data set for cardiac care and even remote intensive-care units that help keep people safer in the emergency room.

But outside of some whiz-bang technical stuff, there are also hundreds of million of people with access to the internet and a desire to get more information about something as esoteric as PHACE syndrome or as common as depression. Add thousands of medical research papers and descriptions about diseases and treatments available via the National Library of Medicine for free, and you have a business opportunity.

Making meaning from medical research

When Jay Bartot and Derek Streat decided started Medify in 2010 the goal was to use those free research papers to train a machine learning algorithms how to deliver intelligible information to health queries from the masses. Bartot, who had co-founded Farecast, a startup that built a predictive algorithm to tell users the best time to buy airplane tickets, decided to take his knowledge of prediction to the health world after his own family’s brush with a medical problem.

In May, Medify was purchased by Alliance Health Networks a Salt Lake City, Utah-based startup that has built out a community of 1.5 million people who gather to discuss diseases and medical conditions. Now, with Medify on board and a community of people whose discussions about health are also a great source of data, Alliance Health is seeing how mining unstructured data from professionals and patients alike can help improve heath.

Medify had used the National Library of Medicine to build out ontologies that it uses to “teach” the algorithms to understand medical terminology and treatment plans, and has then built up a user interface around those algorithms. Like IBM (S IBM) has found with Watson, its supercomputer that has found a role helping doctors diagnose illnesses based on symptoms, medicine is a good place for this type of data mining.

The goal is to take the ontologies learned from Medify and combine its algorithms with what people discuss in Alliance Health’s communities. Then, Alliance can apply new algorithms to see who in the community is offering the best advice, understand how patients influence and inspire each other, and then help pharmaceutical companies and even doctors understand and influence how patients make medical decisions.

Getting value from big data doesn’t have to be a big undertaking.

It’s actually a great example of how thinking about big data doesn’t have to be as complicated as using a supercomputer and expensive clinical research filter through algorithms to help doctors diagnose illnesses. Streat says the company’s data is only in the low-terabyte range and they process it using Amazon Web Services, including EC2 and Elastic MapReduce. They add new data every day and refresh their machine learning algorithms weekly, if not every few days.

There’s a place for these simpler solutions, and by bringing together a community and providing it with information, Alliance Health might become a company much like Spiceworks is in the IT space — able to both monetize and help a community of niche users in a way that benefits everyone. For example, a company that makes a new diabetes test might pay to sponsor the diabetes channel on Alliance or may even pay to find out who the big influencers are in the forums associated with that channel. If done correctly, users might even welcome sponsored how-tos or better information delivered about a new drug or device.

Streat explained that as far as medicine and data-combining go, there are many efforts around devices and even fancier data sets. However, he’s confident that even with something like expensive clinical data that’s locked behind paywalls, just being able to direct people to better answers and give them a sense of community is a good place to start.

Investors seem to think it’s a decent bet as well. Alliance Health has raised $20 million since it’s founding in 2006 from investors such as New World Ventures, Physic Ventures, Epic Ventures and Highway 12 Ventures.