At methinks, our business has been witness to the global impacts of COVID-19 even before the virus arrived in the US. Our offices in Korea were closed weeks before our Silicon Valley offices and, even as shelter in place took effect in the US, we polled methinks Thinkers to understand American concerns at the height of the crisis. Recognizing that independent qualitative researchers would be impacted, methinks reached out to offer free services and support in hopes of creating productivity and continuity in research. In subsequent weeks, we learned from amazing companies that have pivoted in the face of COVID-19, working to help slow the epidemic and speed up diagnostics and recovery. Some of these companies used video chat with prospective customers, advisors and SMEs to help in decisioning. One of those companies is ContextFlow, the focus of this methinks executive Q&A with the Company’s CEO and Founder, Markus Holzer. 

Preface: Contextflow develops deep learning-based tools to improve radiologists’ daily routine. Before the pandemic, ContextFlow’s software already included a 3D image-based search engine that could detect disease patterns in lung CTs, including those present in COVID-19 patients. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, ContextFlow was testing its software with partners, but all of the testing was suspended, and ContextFlow’s team immediately started thinking about what to do next. 

Q. Having shared with me the massive business disruption you’ve overcome, can you share with us how the clinical network surfaced the features and functionality that is used by radiologists to evaluate patient CAT scans for COVID-19? How did they share the ideas — was it a call, an email list or forum?

A. We’re a spinoff of the Medical University of Vienna, and as a result, we have great contacts there and at Vienna General Hospital. Between these institutions and our international advisory board of radiologists, we have a constant feedback loop that allows for quick dialogue of trending topics. So we got together as a team, looked at our existing capabilities, and after several days of video chats, developed a few potential COVID-19 use cases. We then presented these to our current proof of concept partners plus some new hospitals to gain their feedback. When they said, yes, this has value, we had our answer for moving forward. 

Q. When you realized there was a way to pivot and contribute to COVID-19 diagnostics, what was the internal discussion like — any hesitations? Was there a new level of urgency? 

A. Updating the roadmap is a big undertaking with a lot of implications, particularly for the dev team, so we definitely didn’t take the decision lightly. We discussed what this would mean for our current proof of concepts, investment timeline, upcoming sprint planning, etc. and agreed if we were to respond, we needed to shift focus quickly and whole-heartedly. There was (and still is) a natural sense of urgency because people are suffering. I cannot say there were many hesitations, however, because clinical partners started asking if we had specific capabilities. Obviously that’s something we had to respond to. 

Markus Holzer, flanked by his team at ContextFlow.

Q. Do you have any sense of how much ContextFlow is helping? Do you know how much your technology is being utilized?

A. We’re still in the setup or testing phase, depending on the site, but we’re looking forward to our partner hospital and clinics’ feedback in the upcoming weeks and months. In some cases, it will be used by the entire department; in others, a select group will test the system. The goal in every case, however, is to save time, increase radiologist confidence and improve reporting consistency and quality.

ContextFlow’s software illustrates three types of CT images belonging to typical COVID-19 patients -- the “cut glass opacity” (CGO) being the most prevalent visual, is on the left. These groupings help physicians understand what to look for in CT scans of symptomatic patients.

Q. Do you think this is a new line of business, or just something specific for diagnosing this virus? Will ContextFlow continue with the previous product pursuits that were near launch? 

A. Our COVID-19 features are an extension of our core technology, and thus we will continue to follow our updated roadmap for developments that were already underway before the crisis hit.

Q. What kind of unanticipated consequences and developments has the company experienced since this pivot? How do you feel this experience has changed the company and employees?

A. The consequences of COVID-19-related feature development were not particularly unanticipated, as the dev team has a lot of personal experience in situations where change evolves rapidly; what form those consequences take, however, are impossible to predict. For example, we know every hospital’s IT architecture is different, but what that means exactly is never 100% clear until we’re in the middle of implementation and deployment. But we welcome these challenges because they ensure our software is robust. I’m proud of my team’s devotion to the task. While we prefer strengthening our bonds face-to-face, COVID-19 has brought us all together with a heightened sense of passion for our work and gratitude for those working on the front lines.

Note: To learn more about ContextFlow, visit their website or follow @contextflow_rad on Twitter.

Aaron Burcell

Aaron is the CEO of methinks, where he oversees marketing, revenue operations and marketing partnerships. He has held previous executive posts at Loop Media and Marcus by Goldman Sachs. He is a graduate of Stanford, where he won the George C. and Emily Jacobs Foundation scholarship and, prior to attending Stanford, he was the recipient of UIHS study grants for his work in Native American epidemiology. After graduation, Aaron briefly lived in Vienna, Austria, where he created life-long friendships and developed a love of the city’s people and culture.

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