Partnership goes from revolutionising farming to transforming human health with AI

Agri-innovator Techion and Awanui Labs collaborate on a lab testing solution leveraging Microsoft AI, in a first for global healthcare  


04 December 2023 

New Zealand: Leading New Zealand agricultural testing company Techion has announced the signing of an agreement with Awanui Labs, with the potential to make New Zealand a global leader in medical diagnostics and revolutionise access to human healthcare.

The deal will see Techion and Awanui Labs collaborate on developing testing solution, using Microsoft cloud and Custom Vision AI technology to enable remote analysis of a range of microscope-based tests from regional clinics and hospitals.

Techion’s digital imaging technology, used to successfully detect parasites and other diseases in farm animals, will now be developed to make testing human medical samples faster, more accessible and cost effective. For some diagnostic tests, it has the potential to enable smaller communities to enjoy a similar level of service as the big cities.

“The integration of a digital diagnostic solution will be a transformational change that once realised, will complement Awanui’s regional diagnostic services. We have proven how powerful this approach can be in animal health and I believe it will energise the conversation around how we deliver the future for regional healthcare in New Zealand,” says Techion CEO Greg Mirams. 

In regional centres with small populations, it can be difficult to recruit, train, and retain staff to sustain a comprehensive diagnostic service. Regionally based scientists and technicians often don’t see a high volume of some sample types, so these samples will often be referred to an urban laboratory for analysis. Using AI will be a transformational step forward to either automate or assist remote scientists and technicians to analyse samples, improving repeatability, standardisation, and accuracy.

The availability of digital imaging technology would mean that samples would no longer need to be transported off-site. For certain tests, Techion’s Rata AI platform has the potential to automatically spot and raise any red flags for clinicians, reducing the need to review thousands of sample slides showing no areas of concern, which would take significant pressure off busy labs (and the environment).

The partnership has the potential to significantly boost efficiency and sustainably extend regional services at Awanui Labs, which is responsible for around 70 per cent of the New Zealand diagnostic market.

However, Awanui Labs Head of Strategic Business Development, Trevor English, says the most important potential benefit from developing the technology would be seeing patients across the country receive the same levels of service and enabling testing to be done at point of care, regardless of their location. 

“The constant challenge is samples degrade when they’re sent away for testing. You can’t transport fluid from a spinal tap, for example, because the quality deteriorates so quickly. That means people outside our biggest cities sometimes have to travel for these procedures, adding stress, inconvenience and cost. This approach has the potential to solve this issue, and also reduce the pressure on our urban based teams and spread the testing load across our network,” he says.

Awanui Labs clinical microbiologist, Professor James Ussher, is particularly excited that in future regional medical staff may be able to process some of these samples on site. Techion’s platform could also enable staff to hand over control of the device to online expert clinicians to examine a sample if required. This feature would allow a specialist to remotely adjust settings like lighting and focus or zoom in and change angles to get the best image, all from the comfort of their home office.

“It can be difficult to drive a car when it’s set up for someone else – and it’s the same with a microscope. With this technology, scientists and clinicians wouldn’t have to rely on other people to “drive”, because they could recalibrate the settings to exactly what they need remotely. When you think about it, the days when you used to have someone developing your X-rays next door to where they are read are gone, because it can all be done digitally. With this partnership, the microscope-based diagnostic world could finally catch up with other areas of healthcare,” Ussher says.

The initial phase of the Techion and Awanui collaboration will focus on developing a solution to test fluids such as urine and joint fluids for infections. However, there is a much wider range of microbiology, pathology and haematology diagnostic applications that will likely be explored in future.

Techion is already fielding enquiries from specialists internationally, excited about potentially being able to offer after-hours, 24/7 analysis through the online global marketplace.

“To see our Microsoft Azure and AI technology used for such a purpose – first, aiming to transform healthcare right here in Aotearoa, then potentially benefiting every single person on the planet, is absolutely mind-blowing. Hats off to visionaries like Greg and the Techion team, and to Awanui Labs for backing homegrown innovation. We want to do everything we can to support this mahi and take it to the world. Watch this space,” says Vanessa Sorenson, Managing Director of Microsoft New Zealand.

Adds Mirams: “This a true New Zealand Inc. story, where the technology is locally designed, developed and manufactured, giving New Zealand the ability to optimise, trial and test its own technology, while delivering an affordable solution for regional centres.”