Ottawa's Replica Analytics using 'synthetic data' to ease medical researchers' pain points

Khaled El Emam
Khaled El Emam is co-founder and CEO of Ottawa healthtech startup Replica Analytics. Photo courtesy Replica Analytics

An Ottawa startup that uses artificial intelligence to safeguard and streamline the process of sharing data from medical trials is gaining rapid traction after landing seed funding from a European venture capital firm.

Replica Analytics has developed a software platform that uses machine learning algorithms to generate “synthetic data” that closely replicates the statistical properties and patterns found in real datasets.

The two-year-old firm’s backers say the synthetic data is just as good as the real thing when it comes to analyzing the results of clinical studies but is not linked to actual people, meaning it can be more easily shared among researchers without raising patient privacy concerns. 

The 15-person company is now working with partners such as pharmaceutical giant Merck Canada and the University of Alberta to test the software in real-world scenarios. 

Life sciences firms, medical device manufacturers, drugmakers and organizations that collect and analyze clinical research for pharmaceutical companies are among Replica Analytics’ main target customers. Already, the market is showing signs of being impressed.

'The future of data sharing'

Earlier this year, Replica Analytics closed a seed financing round with Barcelona-based Nina Capital, a venture capital firm that invests in early stage healthtech startups. 

The Ontario Institute for Cancer Research as well as several Ottawa- and U.S.-based angel investors also took part in the round, and the firm expects to close a follow-on round in the next few months.  

Co-founder and CEO Khaled El Emam, an epidemiologist at the University of Ottawa and a senior scientist at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute, says Replica Analytics’ solution represents “the future of data sharing” in health-care research. 

“We’re kind of at the tip of the spear in terms of creating a new market and building momentum,” says El Emam, who previously launched another healthtech firm called Privacy Analytics that he sold to a U.S. company in 2016.  

“The market is jelling … faster than I thought it would in terms of getting traction. There’s a lot of interest for sure.”

"The market is jelling … faster than I thought it would."

Replica Analytics began generating cash flow right out of the gate, growing its revenues tenfold in 2020. This year, the firm quadrupled its second-quarter revenues compared with the previous three-month period, and El Emam says he sees nothing but a wide-open field of opportunities ahead in a space that’s just beginning to come into its own.

Market research firm Gartner, for example, predicts that by 2024, 60 per cent of data used for AI and big-data analytics solutions will be synthetically generated. 

As a veteran medical researcher, El Emam says his platform “checks all the boxes” when it comes to alleviating a pair of longstanding pain points for organizations that conduct clinical research: privacy concerns and the sheer cost of staging medical trials that often take years and require data from thousands of patients.

If researchers were able to substitute synthetic data for some of the information that normally comes from studies conducted on real people, it could potentially save massive amounts of time and money in bringing new drugs and other treatments to market, he predicts.

“These things cost tens of millions of dollars, sometimes more, to conduct,” El Emam explains. “So if you’re able to reduce those costs, that would be a game-changer.”

Still, El Emam has been around long enough to know that riches rarely come quickly in the heavily regulated healthtech sector. 

He cautions that it’s early days for Replica Analytics, and its platform is still being tested. But El Emam says there’s no question that AI is going to revolutionize the way medical research is carried out, and he intends to be one of the trailblazers who forge that future. 

“I’m optimistic about the market opportunities here,” he says. “We’ll see how this plays out.”