The US has Silicon Valley. New Zealand has Fia Jones' flat.
The Herald recently chronicled how the 21-year-old Jones had managed to corner Peter Beck as he attended an Auckland University event. The Rocket Lab founder ended up backing her satellite solar panel startup, Astrix Astronautics.
Now we can reveal that Beck is also offering advice, and financial backing, to Jones' flatmate Will Hewitt (also 21), founder of a startup called HeartLab.
The early-stage company, which makes artificial intelligence-powered software to better analyse heart scans, has just begun a trial with the Waitematā District Health Board. And it's in late-stage negotiations with a US clinic to begin a similar pilot.
Jones and Hewitt met when they were placed in the same UoA Summer School maths class.
"That tells you how well we were doing," Hewitt jokes.
But although underachievers in the official curriculum, they were over-achieving in side-gigs.
They bonded over their respective entrepreneurial efforts.
"We talked a lot, and we argued a lot," Hewitt said.
The arguments can't have been bad. The pair have been flatting together for six months. (In another tech twist, their digs are owned by Parrot Analytics founder Wared Seger.)
They've been sharing a workspace, too, at times, and it was at office party drinks to celebrate Astrix's raise last month that Hewitt first met Beck.
Hewitt was able to ask the Rocket Lab CEO for early-days advice, and remembers Beck told him to be very careful with how he spend his funds. But he concedes he also blew a lot of the conversation "asking fanboy questions about rockets".
No matter. Beck was already onboard. Through Outset Ventures (home of new $10m "Deep Technology" fund backed by the Rocket Lab founder), he participated in HeartLab's $1.1m October 2020, which was also supported by Icehouse Ventures and Peter Thiel's Founders Fund (although the billionaire has been scarce in our parts since gaining his Kiwi passport in 2011, Founders Fund partner Scott Nolan has made annual talent-scouting trips to NZ).
Hewitt has always had an entrepreneurial bent. He founded his first company, ThinkBot, at just 15 while at High School in Nelson, selling electronics kits designed for school use. He sold about 100 of the kits, which he says are still in use. And a couple of years later he earned some extra coin with his second, Ventworks, which sold internet-of-things (IoT) widgets like moisture sensors for farms.
And it was only one year later, at age 18, that Hewitt founded HeartLab. But that time he had started at Auckland University's Bioengineering Institute - a centre for research that improves medical diagnosis and treatment of injury and disease that the young entrepreneur describes as "a beautiful marriage of art and science."
It was there that one Hewitt got his idea for Heartlab - using AI software to automate and speed the process of processing and analysing echocardiograms - the scans used by cardiologists to gauge the health of a heart. It seemed high-tech ultrasound scanning was followed by a slow, manual process of uploading and reviewing. Hewitt thought an AI could spot subtle patterns that a human eye could miss - or at least take up to 20 minutes to spot, when software could take a faction of the time.
A supervisor suggested the teen discuss his concept with Dr Patrick Gladding, a consulting cardiologist at North Shore Hospital.
Hewitt remembers being nervous before the meeting, fearing Gladding would be hostile to the idea of AI software talking over part of his job. In fact, the cardiologist was enthusiastic. What was supposed to be a chat over coffee at the hospital's cafe turned into a 90-minute briefing. Soon after, the 40-something Gladding became Hewitt's business partner. Their startup also gained backing from Crown agency Callaghan Innovation as it began to take shape.
And Hewitt has refined his patter.
"Doctors spend years training, and they're very expensive to train, so having them do a repetitive, menial task like taking manual measurements off scans is not a good use of their time."
And he recalls a quote that goes: "AI won't replace doctors, but doctors who use AI will replace doctors who don't."
That said, he qualifies that HeartLab has gone out of its way to fit smoothly within a cardiologist's existing workflow, and to give them a choice over the degree to which they incorporate its AI's results.
And Gladding adds that with ageing populations increasing in many countries, demand for cardiac services continues to grow, and this demand is acute in New Zealand where there are only 100 registered cardiologists to review the 100,000 echocardiograms performed annually.
"Our health system is under enormous pressure," Gladding says.
"We can reduce the pressure on cardiologists, get more people through the health system and save thousands more lives by using HeartLab's technology to help us."
Since the October raise, HeartLab has been in hiring mode, boosting numbers from three to 13 - including two staff poached from Fisher & Paykel Healthcare.
Hewitt says the recruitment drive is nearly over, at least for this stage of HeartLab's growth. A couple more staff will be brought onboard before it knuckles down for its DHB trial in NZ and its pending trial with the (unnamed) American clinic - where HeartLab got a foot in the door thanks to contacts made by Gladding earlier in his career, when he spent a spell in the US.
Tune in, drop out
The founder hopes Heartland can go to market as soon as late this year or early next year, pending US Federal and Drug Administration regulatory approval - which in turn could be the trigger for a Series A raise.
That means, alas, no time for Hewitt to finish his degree.
Like his flatmate Jones, he's shelved his studies.
"I dropped out earlier this year," Hewitt says.
• Will Hewitt will be speaking at TEDxAuckland 2021 this weekend.