A 26-year-old founded a medical startup – the same year he lost nearly half of his sight

Kevin Choi, CEO of Medi Whale, said he firmly believes his diagnosis was “no coincidence.”

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As a ROK Marine who underwent grueling training as part of his national service, Kevin Choi had “no doubt” about his health.

“I’m very nearsighted, but I still think I’m very healthy,” Choi told CNBC Make It.

But that all changed in 2016, when it was discovered he had glaucoma — a chronic, progressive eye disease caused by damage to the optic nerve.

While glaucoma is more common in the elderly, Choi was only 26 years old when he was diagnosed.

By then, Choi said, he had already lost half the vision in his right eye, leaving only “60% to 70%” vision in his left eye—something that could have been avoided with early detection.

But that same year, he moved past these adversities by launching his own healthcare company, Mediwhale.

Mediwhale says it provides cardiovascular risk assessment through AI and retinal images.

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Its machines assess cardiovascular disease risk through the use of retinal images and artificial intelligence — a first of its kind, Mediwhale told CNBC Make It.

With a starting capital of $5,000, he launched the startup with ophthalmologist Dr. Tyler Heungtaek Rim six years ago.

The company said today that it has collected millions of investors with its certified devices in the European Union and several countries in Asia.

How did an advanced diagnosis of glaucoma lead Choi to start his own company? CNBC Make It finds out.

faster alternative

Choi, CEO of Mediwhale, said he firmly believes his diagnosis was “no coincidence.”

As an industrial engineer by training, he started thinking about possible AI solutions that could enhance early detection of diseases.

“There must be some reason it happened to me. And I think I can solve this myself, because I’m an engineer,” said the 31-year-old.

As a physician, Reem also understood the “unmet needs” in clinical settings when it came to detecting cardiovascular disease – usually through CT scans.

“Computed tomography scans are resource-intensive and time-consuming, and thus are a burden on both healthcare providers and patients,” he added.

A long patient journey is a huge hurdle to overcome. Until now, I get very anxious every time I visit the hospital for glaucoma checkups…it’s a long test with a 2-3 hour wait [for results].

Kevin Choi

Co-founder and CEO, Mediwhale

Choi’s own experience with “long patient journeys”—referring to the time between a patient standing in line at the hospital to getting test results from doctors—also prompted him to design a faster alternative.

“A long patient journey is a huge hurdle to get over. Even now, I get very anxious every time I visit the hospital for glaucoma checkups… It’s a long test with a two to three hour wait.” [for results]. ”

Mediwhale claims that with just one retinal image per eye, it achieves “the same accuracy” in detecting cardiovascular risks as a CT scan, while providing patient reports “within a minute.”

“It only takes a few seconds because it doesn’t require any stretching. The image is simultaneously uploaded to the cloud system when captured and automatically analyzed by our AI,” explained Rimm.

convince the doctors

Choi said the biggest challenge the founders faced was convincing other clinicians that the eyes really could be “a window to the whole body.”

Reem added, “The eyes are the only organs in the body through which you can see blood vessels without any surgical intervention.”

“Alterations in retinal microvascular architecture … have been identified as strong predictors of vascular-related diseases, such as cardiovascular and renal disease, because changes often occur before you notice some important symptoms,” Remm explained.

“The healthcare field is a very conservative business. Every conversation I have with doctors or experts…is a lesson to learn,” said Kevin Choi.

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stay humble

For Choi, finding your “why” and purpose is critical to overcoming challenges—both in life and at work.

Knowing that glaucoma could have been detected earlier, he said, keeps him going with his mission, which is to prevent more people from being detected when “it’s too late.”

“Maybe for someone else who is also confident in their health…a simple eye exam could change their lives.”

The healthcare business is a very conservative business. Every conversation I have with doctors or experts…is a lesson to be learned.

Kevin Choi

Co-founder and CEO, Mediwhale

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