Anti-virus software

As AI becomes a crucial weapon in the battle against the global pandemic, companies in the field need to ensure that their valuable IP is protected, as Mao Xiao Hong and Danny Yap of IPOS International explain.

Nine days before the World Health Organization officially notified the public of a flu-like outbreak in China, BlueDot, a Canadian artificial intelligence (AI) startup, warned its clients of a potential outbreak near a market in Wuhan, China.

On December 31, 2019, BlueDot, using machine learning and natural-language processing to scour through foreign language news reports and medical bulletins in many languages, alerted public health officials in Canada and elsewhere of the outbreak and identified the countries that were most at risk, based on airline ticket data.

Breaking new ground

AI is the theory and development of computer systems that are able to perform tasks normally requiring human intelligence, such as visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making and translation between languages.

Tracing its origin to a summer workshop held in Dartmouth College, US, in 1956, AI has attracted considerable attention in research and investment.

However, the development of AI over the decades has been uneven, characterised by waves of progress followed by periods when the field simply languished. But the present wave of AI development, propelled by the twin drivers of increasingly powerful computers and the availability of big data, has been breaking new ground in a diverse range of applications.

These include predicting traffic patterns and biometric identification, the development of pharmaceuticals and now, battling the COVID-19 outbreak. In addition to tracking the spread of COVID-19, researchers have found other innovative uses of AI in this outbreak, for example, developing combination therapies to treat patients by repurposing existing drugs and detecting the pandemic’s effect on people’s mental health by analysing Twitter posts.

In the treatment of COVID-19 patients, AI is being used to analyse computer tomography (CT) and X-ray images to determine the severity and progress of the disease in afflicted patients.

An AI diagnosis programme developed by the Alibaba DAMO Academy and Alibaba Cloud reportedly analyses CT images in about 20 seconds with 96% accuracy. This may be used as an aid by clinicians to improve their efficiency in analysing medical images, reducing the burden on strained hospital resources.

Similar AI-based imaging and diagnostic tools with equally impressive results have been offered by Huawei, Tencent, SenseTime and Ping An. Startups play an outsized role in developing AI-based medical imaging tools for COVID-19.

These include China-based startups Shukun Technology and YITU Healthcare, India-based, Korea-based Lunit, Canada-based Darwin AI and US and Israeli-based RADLogics.

“When COVID-19 struck, these companies redirected their AI expertise and used the incoming stream of COVID-19 patient data to train AI algorithms to help battle the outbreak.”
Mao Xiao Hong
Danny Yap

Fighting COVID-19

Many of these companies were already developing AI-based medical imaging software tools before the COVID-19 crisis.

For example, Qure was using X-ray imaging to screen for tuberculosis, Shukun Technology was analysing CT scans to screen for cardiovascular diseases, while Lunit was using X-ray images to detect chest abnormalities.

When COVID-19 struck, these companies redirected their AI expertise and used the incoming stream of COVID-19 patient data to train AI algorithms to help battle the outbreak.

An analysis of AI patents on medical imaging and diagnosis shows that while an overwhelming majority of these are owned by larger, more established companies in the industry such as General Electric, Siemens and Philips, this is not an unsurmountable barrier for up-and-coming startups. They can still thrive by developing AI-based medical imaging solutions of their own, while attracting significant investor funding in the process.

For example, Qure raised $16 million in venture capital funding in February 2020 while Shukun Technology raised $28.2 million for its Series B1 financing in June 2020.

Larger companies are increasingly partnering with startups to bring AI-based technology products to the market. For example, GE Healthcare and Lunit Insight CXR have jointly developed their Thoracic Care Suite, a collection of eight AI algorithms to help alleviate clinical strain due to COVID-19, while Shukun Technology has entered into strategic alliances with Philips Healthcare and GE Healthcare.

The battle against COVID-19 is fostering technological innovation and startups are using their AI-based tools developed in-house to provide solutions for the healthcare industry whether by themselves or by partnering with more established companies.

“Choosing the right type of protection depends, to a large extent, on whether the technology being developed can be reverse-engineered or copied once it is put out in the market.”

Protecting IP assets

In the desire to bring AI-based solutions to the market, the protection of a company’s intangible assets—its IP—is an important consideration to keep in mind.

Proprietary technology such as AI-based software applications can be protected by retaining them either as trade secrets, which are protected under the law of confidential information, or by filing patents, which can provide patent owners protection for their inventions under the Singapore Patents Act.

Choosing the right type of protection depends, to a large extent, on whether the technology being developed can be reverse-engineered or copied once it is put out in the market, as well as the potential risk of technology theft.

Properly protecting IP assets in the form of trade secrets, patent filings or a combination of both is important for startups to preserve their competitive advantage when seeking alliances or licensing agreements with larger entities.

As the COVID-19 battle rages on, these bedrocks of IP protection are functioning as they should to provide innovators and startups with incentives to develop AI-based applications which ultimately benefit the community at large.

Mao Xiao Hong is a patent examiner at IPOS International. She can be contacted at:

Danny Yap is a senior patent examiner at IPOS International. He can be contacted at:

IPOS International is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore.

Image: / bjonesphotography

Autumn 2020

Stay up to date with the latest news