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Improving the care of pregnant women through AI – Interview with Sonio CEO Cécile Brosset

Women’s health is still a massively under-funded and under-researched area. One major implication of this is the treatment and care available for pregnant women – impacting both the expectant mother and children. 

On a mission to change this, and drive a positive impact for expectant parents, Paris-based startup Sonio is pioneering the use of AI in prenatal care. 

Founded in 2020 by a team of entrepreneurs, scientific, medical and tech experts, Sonio leverages a holistic blend of knowledge and expertise to improve medical outcomes. The startup’s AI software provides prenatal medicine practitioners with all types of medical, imaging, genetic and environmental data to optimize prenatal screening and diagnosis – a game-changer for the sector. The solution is already being used by 150 healthcare professionals across Europe, and, this summer the team picked up €5 million in fresh funding. 

We wanted to find out more about Sonio, how the company came to be, what makes it so special, and what the plans are for the future. So, we had the privilege to sit down with Founder and CEO, Cécile Brosset

Sonio is building products aimed at improving care during pregnancy using artificial intelligence, which is a very important mission. Can you share more about what first prompted you to create this company?

Pregnancy is one of the most beautiful moments in life. It can also become extremely stressful, even dramatic, if something goes wrong. I’ve experienced this personally being a mother of 2. Most pregnancies go well, at least in our developed economies, but access to quality care varies a lot depending on where you live, with an increasing shortage of OBGYNs and new practitioners – midwives and sonographers – coming to the game. Risk factors have also increased a lot with diabetes, obesity, age of motherhood and medically assisted procreation.

Fetal ultrasound combined with genetic testing helps follow the development of the baby throughout pregnancy and detect potential malformations and diseases. But you need to be very accomplished to make sure you won’t miss an abnormality, or give the right parental counselling at the right moment.

That’s why 50% of malformations go undetected before birth, and you need colleges of speciality physicians to get to the right diagnosis.

I knew that bringing technology and medical expertise together could dramatically secure prenatal care, both improving practitioner’s daily job with unique clinical inputs and productivity gains, and reassuring parents wherever they live.

So when I first met with the Polytechnique and the Necker team, crème de la crème in both AI and fetal medicine, who had been working together for 4 years on an R&D project building the first embryo of our software, I knew we were perfectly complementary and could bring something unique to this market and beneficiaries.
As for me personally, I’ve always been driven by the impact I could have in my daily job, and always regretted not having studied medicine like a whole bunch of people in my family. At Bpifrance (where I worked for 7 years), I could both experience the emergence of digital health and the incredible amount of things entrepreneurs can achieve.  

I had the energy to take on the challenge, I was moved by our mission so much I knew I would never doubt the why of this project, we were the right team to bring this project to life, and the economics were there. Sonio was born 😉 

You currently work with around 150 healthcare professionals. What do your products do in practice and how does it help medical teams?

We address two very different market segments.

We first started to work with fetal medicine experts, the ones that deal with complex cases, where something is unusual with a fetus, and need to diagnose and orientate parents. Our expert software, Sonio Diagnostics, combines expert knowledge on all the anomalies and syndromes you can diagnose prenatally, and guides the physician real time during fetal ultrasound to make sure nothing is overlooked. It basically gives immediate access and intelligent prioritisation of expert medical knowledge to reach a diagnosis with more certainty, faster, and can ‘augment’ less expert physicians or at least train fellows as fast as possible.

The AI we are using for this product has nothing to do with image analysis, but fundamentally is solving issues of very large dimension of data and applied probabilities. 

We are now working on addressing the main market, routine fetal ultrasounds being performed by midwives, sonographers or physicians. Here there are two challenges: lowering the risk of missing an abnormality while being more productive. Sonio will provide automatic recognition of ultrasound images, to make sure practitioners don’t forget to take a view and are compliant with the guidelines, to check for abnormalities, and to automatically build the reporting as they scan. It will lower medical malpractice risks, improve quality control as well as reduce the amount of time spent on administrative tasks. Our one-stop software will reinvent the sonographer’s routine, simplify the experience and secure the examination. 

What impact does the use of Sonio’s products have on patients? How does this differ to the standard type of care received during pregnancy? 

From the patient’s perspective, Sonio has several types of impact depending on the case.

  • If everything goes well with the pregnancy, Sonio will provide reassurance that everything has been looked at, nothing missed, and will provide a modern digital experience, by allowing the sharing of ultrasound images in one click, for example. 
  • If there is something unusual though, Sonio will act as an expert companion, a second opinion, securing both detection of the abnormality, and then diagnosis of the pathology. This could have a tremendous impact on the medical outcome both for the mother and the child. Some anomalies can be taken care of during pregnancy, through fetal surgery or hormonal treatments, or need to be dealt with during the first hours after birth, implying to give birth in a dedicated site. Focusing additional examinations, improving parental counselling and anticipating postnatal care are key aspects of Sonio’s value. Shortening time to diagnosis is key when pregnancy is 9 months long.

You recently raised a €5 million Seed round – congrats! What is your main focus as a business over the next 12 months? Do you plan to expand into new markets?

We have 3 main goals for the year to come: 1/ add image recognition to our platform and get FDA-approved; 2/ expand commercially in Europe; 3/ prepare our expansion in the United States. This means investing in AI and tech developments, in clinical studies, and in marketing and sales. We are hiring new talents in those areas and structuring the company to be able to face all these challenges. Building key partnerships is also part of the plan to expand quickly and reach our full potential worldwide. 

It sounds like there is a lot happening at Sonio! What are you most excited about?

I love seeing the team have fun working together and gather around our vision and mission. The most gratifying thing is to see our team members so proud when accomplishing great things in very little time. And obviously, see stars in the eyes of the physicians we work with when testing our software. Hopefully, soon we will also be able to see the longer-term impact on families and children. We see now that our vision is being validated by the market, we know we are building the right product, for the right cause. We know how to get there. Now we just have to make it happen!

My biggest challenge (and excitement) lies in preserving our culture and values, of respect, balance, friendship, proximity, optimism, while growing fast and global, in a constrained economic environment.  Being driven by our mission, women’s and children’s health, without forgetting about our own quality of life at work and at home, and making it an economic success. It’s a true endeavour, and I’m loving every step of the journey.

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Josephine Conneely
Josephine Conneely
Josephine Conneely is an experienced startup operator based in London. She has helped scaled several high growth startups in Traveltech, Fintech and Enterprise SaaS. She is currently building Cohortly.co, a career community for people working in tech.

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