Health Tech: Iulian Circo On How Hyfe’s Technology Can Make An Important Impact On Our Overall…

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Health Tech: Iulian Circo On How Hyfe’s Technology Can Make An Important Impact On Our Overall Wellness

Be realistic about the impact you want to have. Delivering impact at any scale is super hard. If you want to achieve real impact, you must move past the “50 cents will feed a whole family” narratives.

In recent years, Big Tech has gotten a bad rep. But of course many tech companies are doing important work making monumental positive changes to society, health, and the environment. To highlight these, we started a new interview series about “Technology Making An Important Positive Social Impact”. We are interviewing leaders of tech companies who are creating or have created a tech product that is helping to make a positive change in people’s lives or the environment. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Iulian Circo.

Iulian Circo is cofounder and head of operations of Hyfe, Inc., the global leader in AI-powered cough detection and classification. Hyfe maintains the largest cough dataset in the world enabling the building of powerful models to track, manage and diagnose respiratory illnesses. Hyfe is one of a few companies focused on acoustic epidemiology, which is the study of bodily sounds, such as coughing, wheezing, sneezing and snoring, for the purpose of diagnosing, treating and researching medical conditions.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory and how you grew up?

I grew up in a small town in Transylvania on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. I came of age at a time when the world was undergoing profound changes… the end of the Cold War, the end of apartheid in South Africa, genocide in Rwanda, the siege of Sarajevo and the Balkan Wars. That era had a deep formative impact on me, and I decided to pursue a career in human rights protection. This took me to a bunch of very interesting parts of the world at a very intense time in history. For more than a decade I was on the ground witnessing the aftermath of conflict and natural disasters, from East Timor and Afghanistan to DR Congo, Somalia and many others.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Perhaps one of the most insightful things I learned is what a powerful quality-of-life-multiplier technology can be when it is available in environments with low infrastructure. Things like a mobile phone or internet access become life altering to people who are otherwise separated by war or lack of infrastructure. This insight has stayed with me and in a way, I dedicated my life to finding ways to unleash this equalizer effect of technology.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

No one succeeds alone. This is probably true for anyone, in any sector, but if you work with innovation and have any degree of success it is usually because someone, somewhere took a bet on you and/or your idea. More than likely, several people took bets on you.

My career has been an endless succession of people taking bets on me and supporting ideas I was pursuing, oftentimes against common sense. I have benefited from life-altering scholarships that have given me access to education and exposed me to extraordinary people who helped me intellectually and opened my eyes to the world. The humanitarian sector is packed with extraordinary people from all walks of life who are natural mentors and change-makers. When I started my career, I received consistent support from peers and supervisors.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” I have no idea who said this, but it always resonated with me. Deep down I am an adventurer, and this has defined my life and career.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

I think I have a high tolerance for risk. Part of that is my temperament, but most of it was learned. I also have a bias for action. This has sometimes been a problem, such as when I jump into things without fully thinking them through, but overall, it has been a source of net positive outcomes. I also really value my curiosity and willingness to learn. The world around us is changing so much so fast. One must be always curious about things and “keep up with the kids.” This is how someone like me, with no technical background and no background in health, can help build a category-dominating health tech company.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the tech tools that you are helping to create that can make a positive impact on our wellness. To begin, which particular problems are you aiming to solve?

The high-level problem we are working on is the traditional patient-doctor interface which right now is bad. Even when there are tools to quantify symptoms, the sampling happens episodically and infrequently. Basically, you need to wait a few weeks to see a busy human who will spend 15 minutes with you and even then, their direct observation of your symptoms is limited to that brief period. They will perhaps prescribe some pills for you, maybe do some lab work and that’s the extent of 90% of all patient-doctor interactions.

When it comes to respiratory disease, the experience is even worse. Cough is not even part of any sensory data stream right now. It is simply not quantified. Patients and doctors are not able to have meaningful conversations about cough. When asked the frequency of their cough, patients can usually only offer a vague, impressionistic guesstimate. Entire diagnostic and therapeutic plans are built on a patient’s recollection of their cough patterns, which is almost certainly inaccurate.

And it gets even worse. In drug development and clinical trials researchers have no way to measure cough as an endpoint. Like doctors, they are forced to use a patient’s recollection in place of real measurement which adds noise to the study and ultimately slows down the development of effective treatments. The fact that no new antitussive has been approved by the FDA in 50 years is partly attributable to the absence of rigorous endpoint measurement.

Imagine if we didn’t have thermometers or blood pressure monitors and doctors had to rely on a patient’s perception of their own fever or blood pressure. This is the state of cough right now.

How do you think your technology can address this?

Hyfe is building sophisticated AI models that can detect, count and evaluate coughing. Our models run on any smartphone or smart device and count and evaluate cough in real time.

Basically, we have managed to bring precision, convenience and scalability to cough quantification. Hyfe’s tools require minimal infrastructure and no active user participation to function. They can be deployed using any smart device with a microphone. Now patients can track their coughs, doctors can finally use cough as an objective clinical finding and researchers and drug developers can use cough as an endpoint for trials at any scale.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

I have always been driven by opportunities to create impact at scale and the only way humanity has ever achieved this has been through the use of technology. We are now at a point where AI is good enough and the global sensor penetration (through smartphones) is unprecedented. This creates a perfect storm for the building of powerful AI products that can reach anyone in the world at close to zero cost. Cough quantification is such an obvious cause to pursue in this context and I am excited to be one of the people at the forefront of this opportunity.

How do you think this might change the world?

We have incredible technology to detect and treat all sorts of diseases. Yet the №1 cause of mortality for children under five is pneumonia, a disease that is easy to diagnose and treat. This is true in Bihar, India and it is also true in New York. Why is that? To effectively treat and diagnose pneumonia, like so many other diseases that are killing or debilitating people all over the world, we need to make this technology readily available. Hyfe will change the world by bringing a laboratory and doctor to anyone with a phone and an internet connection.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

AI is a peculiar technology in that it learns in unstructured ways. This means that AI models can fall victim to subtle bias that could lead to spurious outputs years down the road. There are ways to mitigate some of this and at Hyfe we have managed to train our models on extraordinarily heterogeneous data, specifically hundreds of millions of datapoints collected from people in 100 countries across every possible social demographic group, ethnicity and education level.

The other concern I always have as a privacy-minded person is the trade-off we all must make between privacy and customization. This is a generation-defining problem we have in tech. Sadly, we are at the tail end of an era in which our privacy has been encroached on by sketchy business models that define the modern internet. We are giving away tons of personal data that are used to manipulate us into spending that extra second on a website or social media post. Personalized health needs some level of personal data and the potential is huge. How do we build this ethically and transparently? I don’t have a catch all answer to this, but I know that if we find the sweet spot the impact will be enormous.

Here is the main question for our discussion. Based on your experience and success, can you please share “Five things you need to know to successfully create technology that can make a positive social impact”? (Please share a story or an example, for each.)

  1. Be realistic about the impact you want to have. Delivering impact at any scale is super hard. If you want to achieve real impact, you must move past the “50 cents will feed a whole family” narratives.
  2. Be honest about the whole impact “balance sheet.” Imagine a fossil fuel company that exploits natural resources at high environmental costs, but they have a very diverse board and progressive employment policies. Are they a net positive company or a net negative company?
  3. Have a curiosity about the world around you and pay attention to it. One thing you want to avoid is getting so into your own impact narrative that you ignore what is going on around you. You must listen to the customers and act on insights from the market
  4. Focus on the problem, not your tech. This is another common innovator’s trap. Often, we get so much into our own tech that we miss the bigger picture of the problem we are trying to solve. A technology that is not packed into a compelling, relevant value proposition will fail.
  5. Iterate constantly. Innovation is not a single event. You have to tinker with it constantly, based on what you are learning from your users

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Right now, integrating a powerful purpose into any project is probably the best way for anyone to differentiate themselves in the long run. Good for the world is simply good for business. This may not be immediately obvious, but we are in the midst of a change that is going to redefine a new generation of business models and, ultimately, economic fundamentals. In the new economy, brands with a purpose will have better engagement with their clients which will translate into being able to capture more value.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Felicity Aston. She was the first person to ski alone across the Antarctic landmass. She is a climate scientist and activist and, of course, a ski bum, which means that aside from having awesome stories she is probably quite fun to hang out with.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

More information is available online at and on social media @hyfeapp and LinkedIn at /hyfe.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success in your important work.

Health Tech: Iulian Circo On How Hyfe’s Technology Can Make An Important Impact On Our Overall… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.