Central Pennsylvania, flanked by Pittsburgh on the west and Philadelphia on the east, has historically been overlooked by entrepreneurs and investors in favor of the state’s larger cities. But the central part of the state does have a few economic advantages — it’s where many of Pennsylvania’s manufacturing startups are located, giving startups who want to automate factory processes access to potential customers. One of the region’s largest cities, Lancaster, is home to Lancaster General Health, a large hospital with research capabilities, while nearby Harrisburg — also the state’s capital — hosts the health insurance company Capital Blue Cross.
Access to the former two companies has proven to be helpful for Aspire Ventures, an early stage VC fund headquartered in Lancaster, which focuses on investing in and incubating health care technology companies, with a particular focus on solutions that incorporate artificial intelligence.
Essam Abadir, the founder and CEO of Aspire Ventures, is one of the speakers who will be appearing at the upcoming Blueprint conference in York, Pennsylvania on March 26-28. VentureBeat is a media sponsor of Blueprint York. At the event, speakers including Abadir will discuss what advancements in automation, artificial intelligence, and other technologies mean for the future of American workers.
Ahead of the event, Abadir spoke to VentureBeat about how his firm uses artificial intelligence to help their portfolio companies, and what it’s like running a venture fund in Central Pennsylvania. Answers have been edited slightly for clarity and length.
VentureBeat: Within health care, what promising applications of AI do you have your eye on?
Essam Abadir: The whole area of deep personalization is super interesting, whether it is cancer drugs designed by AI that is based on your genotype (genetics), phenotype (environmental control of genetic expression), or chemotype (biochemistry), or devices like artificial pancreas and artificial kidneys that are developed on the same principles that manage you as well as your own organs would.
My interest has traditionally been in computer vision, so I’m very interested in how computer vision can radically transform medical imaging to make it portable, cheap, and ubiquitous.
VentureBeat: How are you using AI to help your portfolio companies?
Abadir: We take a unique approach, putting the most powerful advances in AI engines “on the shelf,” and making them easy to use for our portfolio companies. We’ve invested heavily in a new (old) form of AI called adaptive artificial intelligence — it’s an approach that was bypassed decades ago because the computing power was not available to make it practical. We’re possibly the only group using this approach at scale. We call it A2I, and we provide that engine to our portfolio companies to help them develop algorithms radically faster than their peers.
VentureBeat: How did you end up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania?
Abadir: As the French say: “cherchez la femme” — otherwise translated to: my wife is from here.
I personally love the area, so it has been a happy coincidence to provide a great environment for my kids to grow up in. At the same time, I’ve found far more diversity than I would have ever expected in terms of great technology being developed in the region and an impressive selection of good restaurants and bars to hit after work.
VentureBeat: What are some of the strengths that you think Central Pennsylvania offers in emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and robotics?
Abadir: While Central Pennsylvania may not have the most mathematicians per capita, we have far more advantages than many realize in terms of data availability and expert resources. To do AI you need massive amounts of data, and we happen to be within three hours’ driving distance of 40 million people. We are the number one region in the country in terms of specialty manufacturing, and unexpected robotics experts like TAIT have near monopolies on their industries. Anywhere else, these types of resources are either unavailable or are near impossible to tap into — here we still have a small town feel that enables collaboration via a quick phone call.
VentureBeat: What excites you about Central Pennsylvania’s tech community right now, and what are some areas for improvement?
Abadir: The story of Central Pennsylvania being the center of the world in the entertainment technology industry is not well known. What is happening in Rock Lititz is truly stunning, with all the leading companies in experiential technology maintaining a presence for the development of robotics, VR, audio, and systems control.
We certainly hope to replicate and innovate in the same respect within health care. We’ve already started to do so with unique health system and payor collaborations like the Smart Health Innovation Lab, which we’ve developed with Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health and Capital Blue Cross.