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NZ brand higher on world stage due to Covid-19 success

Dr Ralph Highnam says the view across Wellington Harbour from his office is a reminder to keep thinking globally.
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New Zealand’s brand on the world stage has gone to a whole new level because of its success in the battle against Covid-19.

That’s the view of Dr Ralph Highnam, CEO of a Wellington-based technology company whose software is used in 39 countries and has its biggest customer base in the United States.

He says New Zealand already had “a great brand” but now “everyone knows New Zealand because of Covid, or rather lack of”.

Every overseas mention can only be good for the country’s international profile, he says.

Dr Highnam is CEO and a co-founder of Volpara Health Technologies. The company was formed to save families from cancer by using artificial intelligence (AI) to help human eyes look for cancers in X-ray images taken during breast screening.

Volpara won the Supreme Award at the 2020 Wellington Gold Awards after winning the Cyber Gold category.

Dr Highnam says Volpara is unique in the world for offering a complete software platform and integrated product suite.

Involved in 25% of US screening

About 25 per cent of all breast screening done in the United States uses at least one of the company’s software products, bringing in annual revenue of around $NZ20 million.

Annually Volpara processes 10 million mammogram images, most from the US. The next biggest users are in Australia, Canada and New Zealand, nearly all from the private sector.

During a breast screening, digital images are automatically sent to Volpara. Its on-site and cloud-based software generates image quality and breast density scores while the patient is still in the examination room.

This means any substandard images can be redone before the patient leaves. The breast density score, which is an indicator of risk, is then available to the radiologist when they check the images to look for cancer.

The hotspots show where quality issues lie. High quality images with the breast properly positioned mean earlier detection of cancers.

In New Zealand Volpara’s technology is used by private radiology and breast screen providers in Auckland, a private radiology facility in Palmerston North and it assists with quality assurance of the Hutt Valley District Health Board’s screening programme.

Founders met overseas

Dr Highnam has a PhD in computing.  The company’s three other co-founders, who are also shareholders, are professors of engineering and physics in Canada, Britain and the Netherlands. Dr Highnam met them during his PhD studies at Oxford University.

All four had lost family or friends to breast cancer and knew screening saves lives but could be improved.

They agreed that adding AI to the analysis of screening images could help radiologists pick up cancers that they might otherwise miss, particularly in dense breast tissue most common in younger women.

The risk of breast cancer increases with age and if a woman’s breast tissue stays dense as she gets older, cancers can be more difficult to find.

Began in spare room

It was in 2009 that the company began in a spare room of Dr Highnam’s former home in Hood Street, Wellington, a stone’s throw from Te Papa.

They felt Wellington would be a good base because of the engineering talent around the capital.

As a small business they were appreciative of support from Grow Wellington and its aim to connect high growth export orientated businesses with the people, tools and knowledge they needed to fulfil their potential.

Volpara takes its name from volumetric parameters, a scientific term relating to the measurement of volume. Breast imaging is three-dimensional, rather than two dimensional.

Cloud-based helped through lockdown

From the beginning Volpara decided all company business and records would be cloud-based because of Wellington’s earthquake reputation. That resilience was put to the test during the Covid-19 lockdown when their staff of about 70 worked from home.

“Being ready for anything helped us through Covid,” Dr Highnam says.

They used skype, had weekly catch ups and introduced a daily quiz to provide a social element.

Now staff are back in the office two to three days a week and work from home the remainder of the week.

“It seems to be a great balance between people’s lifestyles while keeping all the positive aspects of office culture going,” Dr Highnam says.

The staff in Wellington comprise a group of PhDs doing science and research work, others who take their work and convert it to engineering, a group of testers and quality and regulatory people plus finance and administration staff.

Symptoms should be better known

For future goals, Dr Highnam wishes the public could become more aware of the tell-tale symptoms of breast cancer which is no respecter of age at either end of the spectrum and more aware of the benefits of screening.

In New Zealand women are offered free mammograms every two years from age 45-69.

Seventy per cent take up the offer which means 30 per cent do not, often because they are too busy, or worry about the procedure.

Dr Highnam says his company wants to get to a point where all women are screened and risk assessed at an earlier age than currently is done and then personalised screening plans put in place.

Ideally he would like to see women have baseline mammograms at around age 35.  BMI (body mass index), breast density, family history and the number of children they have had would be factored in and those calculated to be at higher risk would immediately enter a screening programme of some kind.

And, although rare, breast cancer can occur in men – in New Zealand it is around one per cent of all breast cancers.

While the company’s software is in widespread use in the United States, involvement in Australia’s and New Zealand’s public screening programmes is another high-priority goal. Dr Highnam notes the company’s desire to see women in New Zealand benefit from Kiwi technology.

Offering Volpara’s products around the world continues with the latest take-up by screening providers in Morocco and Ireland.

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For more information:

Volpara Solutions website 

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