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Practical AI-based solutions to build tomorrow healthcare processes

Interview - June 27, 2024

Digiray, established 15 years ago, is pioneering practical medical IT solutions by implementing AI-based solutions for imagery, and by implementing Chatbot to streamline medical processes with HERA Arts platform. 

FIRECR DEVICE
MR. JAMES GONG | CEO OF DIGIRAY CO., LTD.

South Korea currently faces a unique demographic situation. On top of becoming the world’s first country to see its fertility rate fall below 1.0, experts estimate that by 2025, more than 25% of the South Korean population will be over the age of 65, turning the nation into one of the first super-aging societies in the world. While this demographic trend presents challenges, it also provides the Korean medical & pharmaceutical sector with a unique opportunity. What is the role of the Korean medical industry in mitigating the negative impact arising from and aging population?

Indeed, the issue of an aging population in Korea is a stark reality, and it's evident in various sectors, such as the growing number of elderly care facilities. This situation undoubtedly presents an opportunity as the demand for medical services is set to rise. Alongside this, we can expect the development of various technologies and the emergence of companies providing services tailored to this demographic. Therefore, in terms of healthcare for the elderly, I firmly believe that this presents a significant opportunity that we must embrace and develop in the future.

 

In 2021, the market size of the medical device market in South Korea reached 9.1 trillion KRW. However, critics such as Professor Sun Kyong of Kyung Hee University claim that this increase has mainly contributed to foreign companies, not domestic ones. And the challenge for growing companies in the future is to be able to regain these domains regain market share in the domestic markets. How do you expect this trend to evolve? How can Korean companies regain domestic market shares?

I'd like to start by expressing my disagreement with Professor Sun's statement. The history of South Korea's medical device industry has been relatively short, spanning just a couple of decades. During this period, it was crucial for companies to evolve by collaborating with foreign counterparts, learning from their technologies, and exporting products. This collaborative approach enabled Korean companies to develop to their current status. In the context of Korean manufacturing firms, one significant reason behind their substantial growth is the relatively modest size of the domestic market. To thrive, these companies needed to prioritize exports.

 

Over the past three years, we've witnessed numerous success stories emerging from Korea in the medical industry. Korea dominates the ultrasound imaging market, and in vitro diagnosis is completely led by Korean companies. Furthermore, in the field of dentistry, we're witnessing a creative journey toward becoming global champions, not only in implants but also in related equipment and machinery. What, in your opinion, are the key factors contributing to the international success of Korean medical-related companies? How competitive do you perceive Korean dental products to be in the global marketplace today?

While we do have many successful companies, it's important to acknowledge that there are also companies that have faced challenges. Reflecting on my own situation, I often feel the pressure of time. From a personal perspective, I believe that several crucial factors contribute to success. Firstly, regionalization, tailoring products to the specific needs of regional customers, is essential. Additionally, providing a high level of comfort and offering quick, accessible technical support are paramount. Continuous efforts to make our products the best in their category are also crucial to remaining competitive.

 

Digiray was established in 2010, and you've developed two different areas of expertise. On one hand, you've made existing computed radiography systems more affordable and user-friendly for clinics with limited space, while on the other hand, you've delved into high-tech products involving AI and software and hardware development. Can you highlight the milestones your company has achieved in the past 13 years and how you arrived at this diversified portfolio?

We are a company focused on medical devices and dental-related products, with a primary goal of improving image quality. We recognized that simply enhancing hardware wouldn't suffice; we needed to invest in software development to elevate image quality. This led us to employ AI deep learning technology to process images more effectively, facilitating the detection and resolution of issues.

Regarding AI, it plays a crucial role in two aspects of diagnostics: image quality enhancement and AI-based diagnosis. Currently, the AI diagnostics market is relatively unstable, with issues related to reliability and accuracy. However, I believe this market will significantly evolve in the next five to ten years, presenting a promising future for AI diagnosis.

I'm currently exploring the use of chat GPT to support our AI technical assistance model, allowing us to provide continuous 24-hour support using the chat GPT model. This represents an area of particular interest for us.

 

When examining dental care today, the most significant markets are in developed economies, typically linked to people achieving a certain standard of life and living. However, with the rapid development in many Middle Eastern and Asian economies, dental care is becoming increasingly important, often with a shortage of professionals in certain developing countries. Conversely, in developed markets like Japan and Italy, where populations are decreasing, there's also a lack of medical professionals. How do you anticipate that AI in the dental care industry will impact both developing and developed economies? What are your projections for the next five to ten years?

At present, we're selling products equipped with diagnostic software in the Middle Eastern and Latin American regions. However, in developed markets, due to regulatory constraints, we are unable to do so. The adoption of AI software by hardware developers is expected to vary by region. Nevertheless, in the future, I believe that hardware without AI-related software will struggle to remain competitive in the market, and this transformation is likely to occur over the next five to ten years.

AI diagnostics software essentially serves as a supportive tool and cannot function independently; it aids in the diagnostic process. In interviews with dentists, we've found that approximately 30 to 40% of their time is spent on patient diagnosis. By incorporating AI software, they can work more efficiently, enabling quicker and more objective diagnoses.

 

In densely populated cities like Tokyo, Manila, and Seoul, medical and dental clinics are often situated in the heart of the cities, with high rental costs and limited space. This can constrain their budgets for investments and make it challenging to transition from traditional film-based imaging to more advanced and fully digital systems. How does your product address this issue, and how can your current and future technology solutions solve these problems?

The medical environment varies greatly from one country to another, so we must consider these differences. In our case, our products are deployed in clinics, and one key advantage is their compact size, which is particularly beneficial for space-constrained clinics. Furthermore, when these clinics have an online presence, it allows for more efficient and seamless utilization of our software. Ultimately, our products are designed to enhance the comfort of both dentists and patients, and we believe that our competitive pricing and user-friendly design make them well-suited for clinics in large cities.

 

In your product portfolio, we see the FireCR Dental Reader specifically designed for oral and dental care, as well as the FireCR Spark, a medical product used for both humans and veterinary applications. Looking ahead, considering you have these three segments in oral, medical, and veterinary products, is there a particular segment you plan to prioritize or believe has the highest growth potential?

The FireCR Dental Reader is our primary device, and our focus is on AI-based solutions. As mentioned earlier, we are directing our efforts towards developing our AI-powered technical support module. In essence, as we believe that hardware development has nearly reached its limits, we are investing in software development through AI implementation. Initially, we are using AI to enhance image quality and support the diagnostic process in dental practices. The third area of focus is technical support, which is crucial in the field of medical equipment. By applying AI across these three areas, we aim to stay competitive in the market.

 

These days, experienced dentists can easily identify lesions and caries, as they are common issues. Considering this, where does AI make improvements? Is it for detecting specific diseases within the mouth, or do you envision your product leading the way in dental diagnostics in the future?

To further explain the development of our product, when a patient visits a dentist, around 60 to 70% of the issues typically relate to dental caries or periapical lesions. While experienced dentists can often identify these problems easily, there are cases where certainty isn't 100%, or issues may be overlooked. This is where our product proves valuable. For instance, although it would be ideal to achieve 100% accuracy, our current accuracy stands at 95%, which is quite high. Our aim is to reduce the rate of one to two incorrect diagnoses out of 100 cases, minimizing the stress and time pressure on dentists. Additionally, the system can diagnose images taken for various purposes, not just those taken for diagnostic reasons.

It's worth noting that our software is still in an early version and is provided as an optional feature bundled with the FireCR Dental Reader to enhance its competitiveness. If users prefer not to use AI, we offer the product at a lower price. However, if they want AI, we can activate the optional functions.

Here's an example of how AI works: X-ray images may vary depending on factors such as X-ray energies and controller settings, making it challenging to inspect every detail in a single picture. AI can help by analyzing the images and identifying suspected areas of disease. The dentist can then focus on these problematic areas to make a diagnosis. It's important to understand that AI doesn't learn by itself; it relies on actual case data to improve its performance.

The amount of data we provide depends on several factors. Generally, the more data we input, the smarter AI becomes, enhancing our competitiveness in the future.

However, there is also the issue of personal information. Government approval is required for the input of such data, and this process can be costly. Consequently, implementing AI in this sector can be challenging.

 

In terms of global partnerships, how do you plan to share and develop technologies with other AI companies or medical equipment companies in the future?

AI technology is advancing rapidly, and we initially developed and implemented these technologies in sectors where we saw the most need. We believe that AI technology's relevance extends beyond our company, and it could benefit other companies as well.

One challenge we face is our size. To continually invest in AI technologies, we need a profitable business model. Relying solely on AI imaging diagnosis might not be the most profitable model for us. That's why we developed a new model to generate profits.

We export our products to more than 100 countries worldwide, including Spain, the UK, France, Denmark, Finland, the U.S., and Germany. Communication can be a problem when our clients encounter technical issues, as it can take several days for us to respond to emails due to time differences. For example, if a client sends us an email while we're sleeping, it can be inconvenient for both parties. To address this, we're working on an app that uses AI to provide troubleshooting guides and answer inquiries 24/7.

This business model is based on our experience as medical equipment manufacturers. Technical support is crucial, and initially setting up machines can be time-consuming and costly. We often conduct remote meetings or travel overseas for installations. However, AI technology allows users to connect with this module via mobile phones or computers and access it 24 hours a day. We aim to expand this service to other machinery manufacturers, providing comprehensive support to enhance their global competitiveness.

 

You mentioned that one of the reasons for establishing this new profit model was the broad international profile of your clients, including many European countries and the U.S. Looking ahead, which markets do you believe have the highest growth potential in general?

We already have global partners worldwide, except in the U.S., China, and South America. These three regions are our main targets for now.

I'd like to emphasize that this model is particularly valuable for environments like 24/7 emergency rooms. If a product malfunctions in such a setting, it may not be easy to find someone to fix it immediately. While our model cannot address every issue, it can resolve 60-70% of technical problems through simple questions and answers. For more complex issues that cannot be resolved by AI, we still have technical personnel available. The goal is not to manually address all technical problems but to use AI as a valuable tool. By extending this profit model to Korean medical manufacturers, we aim to enhance our country's competitiveness.

 

Are you considering licensing this technology to other manufacturers in the future?

Yes, this model can be applied to all types of technical support. However, given our experience in manufacturing medical equipment, we are initially concentrating on this area.

 

Please imagine that we come back to have an interview with you again in 7 years from now, which will be 2030. What dreams or ambitions would you like to have achieved by then, and what would you like to tell us in the second interview?

Our company's goal is to become a unicorn.

 


For more details, explore their website at http://m.digiray.co.kr/main

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