Four New Aira Advisors Discuss How They Will Guide Aira in the Coming Months
November 21st, 2018
A greyed-out photo of the Aira Team at their San Diego Headquarters. Overlayed on the photo is the Aira logo, and beneath that is a message that says “Welcome to the Aira Family
From Smart Cities to Designing Research Studies That Examine Aira’s Impact on Users
As Aira expands its technology and services for its users, it also continues to position itself well for the future by adding noted industry thinkers, innovators, and leaders to its Advisory Board. In this blog, you’ll meet four of these impressive experts appointed as Advisors – representing industry frontiers such as clinical ophthalmology, scientific research, smart cities/government relations, and social entrepreneurship. You’ll also want to read their thoughts on what impresses them most about Aira, and the exciting ways they plan to help guide the company in the coming months to enhance our mission in serving blind and low-vision users.
The newly-appointed Advisors include:
Ben Yerxa, Ph.D., CEO at Foundation Fighting Blindness, the world’s leading private funder and strategic champion of research on preventions, treatments, and cures for inherited retinal diseases, and which currently funds over 100 researchers at 67 locations worldwide. Ben is a prominent biotechnology researcher and drug development executive in such fields as ophthalmology, pulmonary, oral health, cardiovascular and HIV. The holder of 60 U.S. patents, he was named to head Foundation Fighting Blindness in 2017 after serving as President of Envisia Therapeutics, a leading biotech company based in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, and focused on the development of novel ocular therapies.
Daniel Chao M.D., Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology, Vitreoretinal Service and Director of Medical Student Education, UC San Diego Shiley Eye Institute. Daniel’s clinical focus is in the medical and surgical treatment of retinal diseases, with a special interest in macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy and its impact on low vision. An active investigator in many clinical trials, he is also involved in multiple interdisciplinary research collaborations to develop novel imaging modalities and therapeutic approaches for retinal diseases.
Paul Parravano, Co-Director, Office of Government and Community Relations, MIT. In his post, he fosters communication and understanding between MIT and government entities at the local, state and federal levels, in addition to major constituency groups and MIT’s surrounding community. Blind since the age of three from retinoblastoma, Paul also serves as MIT’s campus federal relations officer, accompanying MIT’s President on regular visits to Washington and hosting campus visits by elected officials and other dignitaries.
Andrey Ostrovsky, M.D., is a practicing physician in pediatrics and public and community health, in addition to his prominent role as a social entrepreneur and angel investor. He specializes in creating disruptive technology to improve health for vulnerable populations, as well as applying Lean Startup Thinking and Design Thinking to initiate and advance the social and commercial value of innovations in healthcare. From early on in his career he decided to focus on improving healthcare delivery for low-income citizens, including serving as a Senior Resident in Pediatrics in the Urban Health and Advocacy Track of Boston Children’s Hospital and Boston Medical Center (affiliated with Harvard Medical School and the Boston University School of Medicine). He is also an investor and advisor to several companies eliminating disparities, including Solera Health, Axial Healthcare, and Cityblock Health. As an entrepreneur, he has helped found such healthcare startups as Care at Hand (recently acquired by Mindoula Health), San Francisco Vital Signs, and FutureMD.
How did you first come to know Aira, and what impressed you about the company?
Ben Yerxa: At the first Foundation Fighting Blindness Board (FFB) meeting that I attended as CEO of the Foundation, I sat at a table with Suman Kanuganti (CEO and Co-Founder of Aira) where he began talking to me about Aira technology, and soon he invited me to try it during demonstrations at the meeting. I agreed and was really impressed, especially with how clear the audio was and the ease through which the agent on the other end could describe my surroundings. I became more impressed when Suman also demonstrated the technology with other FFB members in the room, including one of our trustees who, under the guidance of Aira’s remote agent, was able to walk a couple of city blocks during the demonstration unassisted on the streets of downtown Chicago.
Daniel Chao: After assuming my position in ophthalmology at UCSD two years ago, I met Rory Moore, Co-Founder and CEO of EvoNexus (Aira’s startup incubator). This led to me meeting Suman. I was particularly impressed with his passion, and that of the Aira team, in reaching out and interacting with different types of people (both sighted and non-sighted) to help the blind and low-vision community. I believe that Aira is in a unique position to be a leader in low vision research because in the past not much was done with traditional aids, such as the white cane and guide dog, in objectively evaluating the effectiveness of tools and technology for people with low vision and blindness. So, Aira, through rigorous scientific evaluation, can be the vanguard for others in the industry to objectively evaluate the utility of low vision assistive technologies such as Aira.
Paul Parravano: For people who are blind or have low vision, Aira changes the game by helping us gain a new level of freedom and independence in receiving information and assistance. I encountered the company in summer 2016 at a blindness convention where Aira was demonstrating its product. I was incredibly impressed there when I could put on this earpiece and through an app on my phone connect with a live Aira agent who described things in the convention hall that I never even knew were there. The agent then guided me outside the hotel where I was able to walk up and down the street to learn about other locations, and the ways that Aira enhances the mobility experience. I signed up for Aira right away and got the service when it rolled out. I soon invited Suman to speak at MIT to a class called Principles and Practice of Assistive Technology about the work Aira was doing. At that time I began to also think about ways in which we could connect some of the researchers and activities about Artificial Intelligence and Machine learning at MIT with what Aira is doing.
Andrey Ostrovsky: Aira initially reached out when I was working with the federal government as they had questions about whether reimbursement through Medicaid for Aira services would be possible. After I left the Federal Government, I reached out to Aira because I was so intrigued about what they were doing. I was particularly impressed by Aira’s ability to take a very elegant design and very sophisticated technology to address some very significant issues impacting blind and low vision people – specifically helping them experience or discover entirely new dimensions of their lives by being able to effectively see through Aira. This was very attractive to me.
Given your impressive and extensive background in your field, how do you view your role as an Aira Advisor? What will you specifically focus on in guiding Aira?
Ben Yerxa: Since Foundation Fighting Blindness is mainly an R&D (Research and Development) organization focused on treatments and cures for blinding retinal diseases, and Aira is a company at the forefront of device development and AI that benefits those who are blind and visually impaired, I think my role as an Advisor will facilitate an exciting cross-fertilization of learning of each other’s fields, which will benefit both of us. For example, as Foundation Fighting Blindness thinks about new R&D advances, and about our other existing initiatives such as our Registry and databases, we can convey some of that information to Aira’s scientific team for inclusion into their technological thinking. Likewise, it may be possible for our organization to learn from Aira about certain technological approaches that Aira employs and which could be used in R&D pursuits at Foundation Fighting Blindness. Through cross-fertilization, great discoveries are made.
In addition, one thing I quickly learned when I became CEO of FFB is the importance of being able to really communicate with, and support our, FFB constituents in everything we do – including informing them of, and making them accessible to, promising new technology such as that offered by Aira, and letting members know the progress FFB continues to make in retinal disease research through targeted gene therapy and other gene independent approaches. So keeping FFB membership and others in the Aira community abreast of such advances is another key role I envision.
Daniel Chao: For any new technology that you are designing and evaluating, the more supporting and evidence-based clinical data that you can provide for its utility in improving patients’ lives, the better. So, as an Aira Advisor, I see my role as helping to provide advice and design clinical studies that best help to get that data investigating the utility of Aira in improving patients’ quality of life.
For example, through working with Aira, we decided that conducting a validated, evidence-based patient survey is one of the best ways of evaluating a technology like Aira’s and its impact on users’ quality of life. We performed such a survey with a cohort of 60 Aira subscribers beginning in early 2017, which is the kind of study we needed in order to convince clinicians and practitioners such as myself to recommend Aira as a service for patients, and to help Aira garner further reimbursement from such entities as Medicare/Medicaid and the VA.
This 30-question survey (which was previously validated by another research group that works specifically with retinal patients with low vision) was initially administered to Aira subscribers before they began a history of using the service; the study was then re-administered to them three months later after they had begun using Aira on a regular basis. Results of the study indicated that from the baseline to three months later, participants did show significant improvement in quality of life, both in emotional well-being and in the performance of daily activity subscales. (There was no correlation found between the number of service minutes used by subscribers and their quality of life improvement). Findings of Aira’s quality-of-life study were published online in October 2018 in Translational Vision Science and Technology, a leading peer-reviewed journal of the Association for Vision Research and Ophthalmology, the world’s largest vision research society. The study can be viewed at https://tvst.arvojournals.org/article.aspx?articleid=2707680.
Follow-up research with participants of this study is underway to determine if improvements to their quality of life are still durable after one year.
Paul Parravano: The government has, for a long time, been trying to employ smart city and independent living concepts, so I welcome my role in informing and familiarizing government-elected officials at the local, state and federal levels on what Aira is doing through these measures to bring greater mobility, accessibility, and independence to people who are blind and low vision. Aira’s smart city Aira Access partnerships with airports, retailers, employers, municipalities and others fit in well with this because it increases the freedom of blind individuals in choosing and benefiting from accessible locations. Measures such as these have me feeling optimistic about the future of creating more inclusive environments in our society for those with vision loss and others with disability.
As an Advisor, I also look forward to serving as a liaison at MIT in connecting those researchers who are interested in sharing what they are learning (through such technologies as Big Data and AI) with appropriate people on the Aira team. Much of what Aira does involves AI and Big Data, and the challenge today is live video data stream and speech output and recognition – technology that has its foundations at research universities like MIT.
Andrey Ostrovsky: I first wish to work with Aira to ensure the development of a robust research strategy that validates objectively the impact of Aira technology on the quality of life of its users in helping them – including those who are elderly – become more productive, mobile, and employable. In addition, through this strategy, we can evaluate the role of Aira technology in contributing to improvements in clinical outcomes of users and decreasing the clinical cost they incur, plus taking these research findings and translating them into new reimbursement possibilities through the Medicaid program, such as shifting from fee-for-service to value-based payment.
Addressing healthcare disparities and other issues impacting people living at the lower socioeconomic levels of society is another priority of mine. In tackling these issues, there is a very big opportunity today to enhance the optimal level of function for those with a disability, including people with impaired vision.