Dr. Sebastian Ahlberg, COO Magnosco GmbH © Tobias Reetz

01 May 2023

"The best AI is of no use if no value is placed on the ground truth."

The potential of artificial intelligence for healthcare is unabatedly great, especially in tumor detection and treatment, and a clear promise of the future and possibilities of the field of digital health. In recent years, this has been increasingly exploited by researchers and AI companies, for example at the Berlin-Adlershof site: Since 2014, the company Magnosco has been researching new methods for skin cancer diagnostics here and has developed a solution called dermatofluoroscopy, which supports the diagnosis of malignant melanoma with high accuracy and thus offers doctors and patients fast and painless help. #ai_berlin met with COO Dr. Sebastian Ahlberg to learn more about their innovative approach, the "next big thing" in their industry, and the leap across the pond to the US market.

Hello Dr. Ahlberg, thank you very much for your time. How did you personally come to Magnosco, what does the company do and what makes it so exciting
Thank you for reaching out and I’m looking forward to talking to you. During my studies in biosystems engineering, I worked as a student trainee at the University Hospital on the two-photon microscope to visualize skin cancer. Through this job, I then came to Berlin to W.O.M. World of Medicine to develop a device for skin cancer diagnostics and therapy as an intern and graduate student. I then went to Charité Berlin to do a PhD in Experimental Dermatology before moving into industry. Medneo, as a provider of Radiology-as-a-Service, gave me a chance as a career changer, and so I was able to develop quickly and very well there as a project manager, e.g. for setting up and ramping up radiology centers. However, I never lost sight of the field of skin cancer and Magnosco was recommended to me by colleagues.

That's how we got into conversation at that time, and when a managing director was being sought, I was offered this position. Since Magnosco is dedicated to optimizing skin cancer diagnostics, I can bring all my experience to bear here and since then I have been primarily concerned with scaling the company, digitizing processes and, together with my colleague, Thomas Diepold, the strategic direction of the company. In my view, Magnosco combines everything a successful company needs. An exciting and growing market, a combination of science, the latest technologies and entrepreneurship, and a highly motivated and competent team.

Your company is developing devices to better and more accurately diagnose skin cancer. What does the cancer detection process look like and how have AI technologies been used in this process?
We have already developed a first device for skin cancer diagnostics and approved it as a medical device under the name DermaFC. The DermaFC combines a patented laser spectroscopy method and AI. Through this product, primarily through clinical studies, we have built up a great deal of exclusive knowledge within the company. We are now using this knowledge to develop further products. We are talking about the "next big thing" in dermatology. We will soon be bigger on the scene with this and are already looking forward to presenting our developments to the masses.

What are the advantages of this method compared to other traditional methods in the industry?
Let's look at our AI for this question. We use AI or machine learning to analyze big data and develop meaningful algorithms. Only in this way is it possible to guarantee the quality of diagnostic support that really helps users. It is particularly important to us to prepare the data very well and, above all, to label it. The best AI is of no use if no value is placed on the "ground truth". A clean, well-labeled data set helps us a lot. This requires a lot of time and knowledge, but our results speak for themselves.

Inventing a new device and developing it further is certainly no easy task. What was once the biggest obstacle to putting your ideas on paper into practice?
The first hurdle is certainly having a good idea. For this, we intensively studied the needs of dermatologists and the team put all its creativity into the development. It's true that it's a long way from paper to product. As a startup, we are naturally dependent on capital from third parties. Even the best idea has to be financed in the end. As a medtech company with the known risks, such as approval or clinical trials, we are not so attractive for profit-oriented VCs who do not base their ROI on longer-term projects. Due to the change of shareholders in mid-2022 to LTB Holding GmbH, we have a reliable partner who looks at our matter with the perspective of a successful medium-sized company, supports us, but also gives us the pressure we need. Fortunately, we are now in a calmer position and can do our actual work.

Another challenge is the search for new employees. On the one hand, the market is currently very difficult, on the other hand, in Berlin, especially for software-related positions, sometimes lunar prices are called, which we cannot and do not want to offer. That's why we're all the more pleased that our employees appreciate the meaning of their work, the cooperation and the chance to create something that delivers added value.

With Magnosco, you are already planning to optimize the product portfolio and expand it to the US market. How have you and your team prepared for this market entry?
Healthcare systems around the world differ in terms of regulation, reimbursement, and workflows, among other things. In this regard, the U.S. market is very specific, diverse and has many hurdles in access - for example, FDA approval. As a small European startup, these hurdles are virtually impossible to overcome. You need partners with expertise to navigate this path. Fortunately, we had a lot of expertise in our network and were able to plan and prepare the necessary steps accordingly. We made good contacts in the States through the German Accelerator or with the help of #ai_berlin.

The year 2024 will be a special year for Magnosco, as it marks the company's 10th anniversary. What plans do you have for the future and what milestones are you targeting?
Yes, you're right. Ten years of Magnosco will certainly be a highlight for us. We have a lot planned and want to take off with our new products. We firmly believe that 2024 will be the most successful year for Magnosco. In doing so, we think internationally, because our "next big thing" can serve dermatology not only in Germany or Europe, but also globally. In this respect, we will certainly have several reasons to celebrate next year.

Last but not least: What do you think about the AI scene here in Berlin? How does the company benefit from this location?
Berlin is generally one of the most important addresses in Europe for startups. Even though we still have a lot of catching up to do in some areas, the city invites many people to start up here with its diversity and creativity. The field of artificial intelligence is exciting. In addition to the many companies that rely on it, there are now also some accelerators, so that the community can also meet and exchange ideas in spots created for this purpose. This is worth its weight in gold and once again increases the attractiveness of Berlin as a location. We can also see this quite simply in our job advertisements. We don't receive as many quantitative and qualitative applications for any positions as we do for our AI positions. This is not only due to the good reputation of our team and the significant publications, but also to the business location of Berlin.