Nick Myers remembers when he was around 8 years old, having to grapple with a harrowing leukemia diagnosis and the treatment that came after.

The now-CEO and co-founder of Madison-based startup RedFox AI, with an office on the city’s East Side, had trouble consuming oral medications. His only alternative was massive injections that his parents had to give him. The procedure sometimes required the guidance of a health care professional over the phone, which for Myer’s parents meant minutes to hours of waiting to get someone on the line.

That experience fuels Myers’ ambitions now as RedFox AI is actively developing a technology, using conversational artificial intelligence, that aims to help people walk through how to take specific medical tests, such as screenings for cancer. And Myers envisions a future in which an AI digital guide not only instructs a user, but offers emotional support as well.

RedFox AI launched in 2019, Myers said, initially with a focus on using the skills of Amazon’s Alexa virtual technology assistant as a backbone to create voice applications. But after the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on the healthcare industry, Myers and the RedFox AI team of less than five employees shifted their focus. Amid the health crisis, the team observed how millions have turned to diagnostic tests as a way to find out if they’ve contracted the illness.

Then in August 2021, RedFox unveiled its conversational AI tech, which has so far captured the attention of health care companies and organizations both locally and around the U.S. The startup has yet to receive its first round of investment funding, Myers said, but he expects that to change soon. RedFox has grown without external funds since its formation, he said.

“Nick Myers and his team have built a conversational AI platform that represents a coming wave,” said Wisconsin Technology Council president Tom Still, who saw the tech demoed in 2019. “(The software) is a prime example of tailored conversational AI, which can be ‘trained’ for specific uses. It’s a natural evolution in voice AI technology with possible uses in health care, which is the RedFox target, but other business sectors, as well.”

Pulling up the software on his phone and computer monitor, RedFox chief technology officer and co-founder Brett Brooks demonstrated on Wednesday how the tech is supposed to work. The user asks the AI a question about a medical test, in this case for COVID-19, and a voice similar to Apple’s Siri or Alexa responds. The tech then provides instructions about how to take the COVID-19 test, and helps the user troubleshoot any problems that may arise as it’s administered.

Visually, the AI looks like a text conversation between two parties. It’s also web-based, Brooks said, allowing the user to use the tech with any interface. On his work computer was some code allowing him to make tweaks to the software if needed.

Myers said a mobile application might be available down the road.

Already, the startup is in talks with companies like Madison-based biomedical giant Exact Sciences, maker of the Cologuard test, which allows people to screen for colon cancer at home, as well as Milwaukee-based Rockwell Automation and other companies to bring its tech to market.

But official agreements haven’t been signed yet, Myers said.

A powerhouse?

RedFox AI likely plays a role in what Washington, D.C.-based think tank Brookings Institution said last fall is Madison’s potential in becoming an AI powerhouse. Educational institutions like UW-Madison only boost that notion, a Brookings report states.

Brookings used seven metrics to assess the research capabilities and commercial activities of 385 metropolitan areas in the United States. The metrics put each area into one of five categories.

The report touted Madison as a center for research (the third category), but suggested that in order to keep up with the country’s emergent AI industry, local business leaders should forge more corporate research partnerships with UW-Madison, promoting entrepreneurship and encouraging local job retention and attraction.

“Significant money is flowing into the region to support almost exclusive contracts or research and development initiatives,” explained Mark Muro, Brookings senior fellow and report co-author last fall. “That’s very important in itself. At the same time, because federal research done at UW-Madison is also building a talent base of skilled researchers and graduate students, there’s a pipeline for future AI expansion.”