Tech entrepreneurs at the uni
Embracing AI’s business potential
Speeding up drug development
Developing a new drug takes time. A lot of time. On average, ten to fifty years, including clinical trials, says biomedical engineering master student Lakshman Rupanagunta (23). He hopes to speed up that process, however, using an artificial intelligence algorithm.
He came up with the idea in 2020, when he was still studying in his home country of India. ‘When I was doing my bachelor research, I noticed the process was much too complicated and took far too long’, he says.
The traditional way pharmaceutical drugs are developed is based on existing research and repeated experiments. ‘The initial discovery takes two years normally’, he explains. ‘But two friends and I figured using AI technology might cut out this period, because the AI can design antibodies, the crucial elements of new drugs, faster.’
It was too early for him to do anything with that idea. ‘I wasn’t ready then’, he says, so he put it on the back burner until he came to Groningen. Here, there’s potential for startups, he feels. ‘So last year, my friends from India and I established Formula Y. Then, he met four students with backgrounds in AI and entrepreneurship who were interested in his idea and joined the team.
The industry needs AI, because saving time means saving money
They apply machine learning to find the formula to speed up a drug’s development process, he explains. ‘The pharmaceutical industry really needs AI, because saving time means saving money.’
Worldwide, only one drug developed with the help of AI is currently being tested in a clinical trial. It is likely more will follow soon, though, because there are several startups and pharmaceutical companies who are working on AI-assisted drug discovery.
Unique selling point
Formula Y is not unique in that, admits Andrés Lorenzo Cabrera (26), a small business and entrepreneurship master student whose role in the startup is operations and business development. ‘But the market is still in the accumulation phase.’
He believes that their specific algorithm will be their unique selling point. ‘It’s like Coca Cola: there are many similar products, but they’re the giant in the market because they have their own exclusive recipe.’
Whoever can satisfy the pharmaceutical companies’ needs will gain a foothold in the market. ‘So we are working really hard’, says Lakshman, ‘but we don’t know what will happen in the future, just like all companies in their starting period.’
A personal learning assistant
It all started with their own studying struggles. ‘We had to read a lot of literature with limited time’, says Mo Assaf (21) from Romania. As AI students, he and classmate Daniel Skala (22), a Slovak, pondered on a technical solution.
They hoped to implement what they had learned during their studies. ‘We wanted to design an AI tool to address the study-related challenges many students face’, says Mo.
The result is Sentelo, an online studying assistance tool. ‘It relieves students from heavy reading’, says Daniel. ‘That doesn’t mean they don’t have to read at all, but our aim is to speed up the learning process.’
Sentelo can summarise an article into bullet points with just one click of a button, for example, through a Chrome extension. ‘Users do not need to learn how to give instructions, like with ChatGPT, to use Sentelo’, says Daniel. ‘It’s like having a personal team assisting you.’
The two have already rolled out several updates based on user demands and feedback, says Daniel. He noticed, for instance, that some students prefer to have complex ideas translated into simpler terms, which is where the ‘explain to a child’ function comes in.
Another function called ‘elaboration’ helps users generate ideas. ‘People often struggle to get into the flow when they start writing. Sentelo can offer content suggestions to inspire them and help them continue writing’, says Daniel.
You’re still doing the work; the AI just helps you
‘Personally’, Mo adds, ‘I have noticed that I use words in my sentences that I would never have used before. So it has improved my writing skills.’
Some students aren’t interested in that – they just want to be more efficient. ‘When you’ve conducted research, an AI tool can help you to put it all on paper’, says Mo. ‘That saves you time. You’re still doing the work; the AI just helps you express your findings.’
Sentelo also has a ‘control questions’ function, which generates questions based on the text provided by users. ‘Students can use it for self-testing, and teachers can also employ it to create exams more quickly’, says Daniel.
Since the introduction of ChatGPT by OpenAI, there has been a lot of discussion about how it enables students to cheat more easily. And yes, ‘you can use any AI tool to help you cheat if there are no proper regulations’, says Mo. ‘But AI cannot make you smarter.’
The better use for AI tools, they both believe, is to help students learn. ‘Artificial intelligence cannot generate new knowledge and it will never be able to develop opinions like humans can, but it can help us explore the world more quickly’, says Mo. ‘It saves us time, allowing us to progress faster and focus on more important matters.’
Fear and opposition to AI cannot impede its development, they believe. ‘First, we need to understand what it is, at the very least’, says Daniel. ‘There has never been a time when humans have invented something that is generally smarter than us. Not smarter than everyone, but more than the average person.’