How a visionary doctor and his UI-hatched startup beat Google in the race to bring artificial intelligence to health care.

University of Iowa doctor Michael Abramoff was in a San Francisco hotel room one morning this past spring when he received a phone call that, in many ways, he'd been awaiting his entire career. For decades, Abramoff—an ophthalmologist, computer scientist, and entrepreneur—had studied how artificial intelligence could be used to autonomously detect a leading cause of blindness. He'd published hundreds of papers and secured a string of patents. Yet with each step he took, his work was met by a collective shrug from the scientific and medical communities.

That was about to change. Abramoff was on the West Coast to attend an investors meeting for IDx, a venture borne out of his research at the UI with the backing of longtime business executive Gary Seamans (71BSEE). He'd have some good news to announce at the meeting. The phone call was a heads-up that the Food and Drug Administration had granted formal approval for IDx to market its futuristic technology—the nation's first-ever AI system that could diagnose disease in place of a doctor.