Ersilia uses AI/ML to advance scientific research with the support of DO Impact

Ersilia website
“DigitalOcean offered us exactly what we needed. As a new non-profit, we needed infrastructure, and also benefited from DO Impact hosting credits and got help building our solution from DigitalOcean’s Ambassador Program.”
Miquel Duran-Frigola, co-founder, Ersilia

Ersilia is a technology non-profit organization that helps research organizations in countries in Africa to more effectively develop new medicines using data science tools and AI/ML models. Ersilia came to DigitalOcean through DO Impact, which provided them with cloud infrastructure credits and hands-on support—with the help of DigitalOcean experts, Ersilia used App Platform to quickly and easily deploy their platform on DigitalOcean’s infrastructure, and are now able to easily manage and maintain their deployments themselves.

Addressing an imbalance in medical research

Ersilia was started when the three co-founders, all scientists with PhDs in biomedicine, saw the imbalance between funding for scientific research in developed countries compared to countries in the Global South. They recognized that medicines for diseases that are prevalent in the Global South are often developed outside of the region, and many tropical diseases are neglected by Western companies who don’t see the return on investment in developing drugs to treat them. The Ersilia team wanted to better empower researchers in the countries themselves to test pathogens and develop their own medicines, and felt that a technology solution leveraging AI/ML models would help them accomplish this goal.

“The Global South is seen as a place for implementation and data collection and not research, which is very bad. From the very beginning we decided we didn’t want to participate in this system, so decided to give the scientific leadership to researchers in the field, trying to do their best with their own ideas and agendas. We listen to them, see what they need, and implement data science solutions according to their needs.” Miquel Duran-Frigola, co-founder, Ersilia

Ersilia looked for funding to develop their platform, but found that most traditional non-profit grants were only for a specific disease or problem, rather than for developing a wide-ranging technology platform. That’s when they discovered Fast Forward, a startup accelerator that provides funding, mentorship, and partnerships to those building businesses that use technology to solve social problems. Fast Forward helped Ersilia identify the tools they would need to build and host their platform, including DigitalOcean, a Fast Forward sponsor.

“We weren’t aware that tech companies might be willing to help us scale up to make more of an impact, and Fast Forward helped us realize that. We wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for them and their support and connections to companies like DigitalOcean.” Miquel Duran-Frigola, co-founder, Ersilia

Using App Platform to quickly deploy their solution on the cloud

When Ersilia was thinking about how to deploy their platform to make it accessible to researchers, they recognized that a cloud-based infrastructure would be the most sustainable solution, as maintenance of local servers would be difficult if something went wrong. The team had some experience with using a hyperscaler, but found that to manage costs on that cloud you needed time and specialized skills that they didn’t have as a small organization. DigitalOcean provided Ersilia with hosting credits through DO Impact’s non-profit hosting program, DO for Nonprofits and Social Enterprises. The team knew that even once they ran out of credits, they wouldn’t be surprised by DigitalOcean costs, which was especially important as a non-profit with limited resources.

“DigitalOcean is so easy compared to others—we’ve had experience with large cloud providers before, and I wasn’t happy with the experience because you need to know how to optimize the cost, which is time-consuming and annoying for a small organization. With DigitalOcean, everything is clear, you know what you’ll pay, and you can’t really make mistakes, which is very reassuring, especially for an organization that is at risk of running out of resources.” Miquel Duran-Frigola, co-founder, Ersilia

In addition to the value provided by hosting credits, DigitalOcean also supported Ersilia through DO Impact’s Ambassador Program, which partnered Ersilia with DigitalOcean employees who donated their time and expertise over the course of several months. DigitalOcean Ambassadors guided Ersilia in how to best set up their infrastructure so it was easy to manage in the long term. Working together, DigitalOcean and Ersilia identified that App Platform, DigitalOcean’s Platform as a Service offering, would offer a simple, low-maintenance way for Ersilia to deploy their platform. DigitalOcean employees developed a solution for Ersilia which used Docker Hub and App Platform so that Ersilia could deploy their solution easily.

“DigitalOcean’s ambassadors were very clear on what they needed to know from me—I had an idea that we could use Docker, and they took over. We had bi-weekly meetings and we were able to deploy models on DigitalOcean. They were very efficient and well-organized and we got documentation at the end that I can go back to, which was extremely useful.” Miquel Duran-Frigola, co-founder, Ersilia

After DigitalOcean engineered a process for Ersilia to deploy an initial model, for a research institute in Cameroon, Ersilia was able to use the documentation provided to deploy additional models on App Platform with minimal additional work.

“Ersilia told us that if we could help deploy this for one model and one institution it would already make an impact, which helped us focus on that for the initial deployment.” - Mike Warren, Business Operations Manager, DigitalOcean

A growing impact for the future

Today Ersilia has 100 AI/ML models on their platform to help scientists become more efficient in testing medicines, but they hope to scale up over time to 500 models. One example of how Ersilia is already having an impact is through their work with a research center in South Africa that focuses on malaria and tuberculosis research. This center has been in operation for 20 years and has a lot of data, but was looking to make its processes more efficient. Ersilia spent six months with them implementing a custom version of their data models, which are deployed on DigitalOcean’s App Platform. Now their scientists can use Ersilia’s models to see which molecules look promising before running an experiment, enabling them to be more efficient with their resources and time.

Ersilia is glad to have found DigitalOcean through Fast Forward, as they were in need of simple, cost-effective infrastructure, and got the added benefit of credits and Ambassador support through DO Impact. Providing support to tech organizations committed to doing good is a core part of DO Impact’s mission, and with the addition of the Ambassador program, DigitalOcean employees are able to share their expertise for good.

“I’m so glad DigitalOcean gives us the opportunity to help organizations that are using technology for good. Even though we were in different countries during the project implementation, we still managed to get it finished, which is a testament to how small the world can be when you’re dedicated to making something work.” - Apurva Bhogale, Engineer II, DigitalOcean






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