An Israeli startup with a unique solution for combatting malaria is one of three finalists for the IBM Watson AI XPRIZE.

The five-year global competition aims to demonstrate how humans can use powerful artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, such as IBM’s Watson question-answering system, to tackle the world’s most pressing issues.

The three finalists — Zzapp Malaria of Jerusalem, Aifred Health of Montreal and Marinus Analytics of Pittsburgh — will learn in June who wins the $3 million grand prize, $1 million second prize or $500,000 third prize.

“IBM Watson AI XPRIZE showcases the ‘art of the possible’ when the power of AI is unleashed to help address some of society’s toughest challenges,” said Daniel Hernandez, General Manager, IBM Data and AI. “It is truly inspiring to see Watson and good tech in action across all three teams.”

Malaria is a public health crisis

Malaria claims more than 400,000 lives each year, mostly children under five.

Africa is the most affected continent, but malaria threatens about half of the world’s population, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Founded in 2016, Zzapp targets malaria-bearing mosquito larvae at their source by using AI to predict where stagnant water bodies will occur and by managing effective treatment of the detected areas.

“Our technology has two components: one about planning and one about management,” CEO Arnon Houri Yafin tells ISRAEL21c.

“On the planning side, AI analyzes satellite imagery and builds a risk index that takes into account topography, land-use data, rain data and more. The management part of the app transfers the AI analysis into defined tasks for field workers.”

The Zzapp app assigns tasks to field workers based on AI analysis of mosquito breeding conditions. Photo courtesy of Zzapp Malaria

Built with tools including IBM Watson Studio, IBM Watson Machine Learning and IBM PAIRS Geoscope, Zzapp’s solution is adapted for low-connectivity environments and works on simple, low-cost phones common in developing countries.

The system was first tested in one part of Ghana in 2017 in collaboration with a local malaria-control company to gauge its effectiveness and cost based on the number of malaria cases reported in area clinics.

“Just recently, we finished a large-scale operation in Ghana covering the entire city of Obuasi and the villages around it,” says COO Arbel Vigodny.

“In Zanzibar, we are using drones in the process in collaboration with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation because to study wide areas by foot is difficult.”

Additional projects in Ethiopia and Mombasa are soon moving forward, says Vigodny.

From diagnostics to prevention

Houri Yafin came to Zzapp from Israeli company SightDiagnostics, whose first product, Parasight, used machine learning to detect malaria in a blood sample in less than four minutes with nearly 100% accuracy.

Sight later branched out from malaria and introduced the OLO onsite blood testing device. But it made the first investment in Zzapp and gave the startup the benefit of its accumulated knowledge on malaria.

“When we were introducing Parasight in India, we saw the toll malaria takes, so we decided to go to the core of malaria and decided to address the problem at its root,” Houri Yafin says.

Spraying mosquito larvae in Ghana. Photo by Arbel Vigodny/ZZapp Malaria

Existing strategies, like spraying the stagnant pools where larvae hatch, do work but can be greatly enhanced and better coordinated through artificial intelligence, he says.

“It’s about digitizing the operations to plan them more effectively and analyze the data from our mobile app that field workers use to get the AI recommendations and report what they are doing,” says Vigodny.

“That data shows any issues and helps us identify problems early to take corrective actions quickly.”

Houri Yafin says the company hopes to funnel the XPRIZE money into a project “demonstrating our capability of fully eliminating malaria from a small country or island to prove our capabilities — and do it in a replicable way.”

Spraying stagnant water sources kills disease-carrying mosquito larvae in Ghana. Photo by Arbel Vigodny/ZZapp Malaria

Zzapp also is launching a funding round to supplement whatever prize money it will win.

“Sadly, our technology is quite unique. The idea of using AI and apps for solving developing world problems is a growing trend, but we are the only ones applying these tools to larviciding in a precise and smart way,” says Houri Yafin.

He points out that Zzapp is the second Israeli team that made it to XPRIZE finals. In 2017, SpaceIL was named one of five finalists in the $30 million Google Lunar XPRIZE Moonshot contest. (The contest expired before any of the finalists reached the Moon, but XPRIZE awarded SpaceIL $1 million for its attempted landing in 2019.)

Commenting on the current competition, XPRIZE CEO Anousheh Ansari said: “AI is key to a healthy, prosperous, abundant future and will continue to transform how we live and work.”

Ansari said he expects Aifred Health, Marinus Analytics and Zzapp Malaria to “change the game in their respective fields, and we are looking forward to seeing firsthand the positive impact they will have on humanity.”

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