Skin Scan wants to fight cancer using iPhones and big data

Skin Scan, a startup based in Bucharest, Romania, is selling an iPhone app that lets consumers take pictures of questionable moles and get back information on the likelihood that the mole in question is dangerous. However, during a discussion with Skin Scan’s founders at IBM’s (s ibm) SmartCamp competition on Thursday (where Skin Scan was among nine finalists), I found out the company has much grander goals than helping consumers figure out whether to see a doctor.

On its surface, Skin Scan’s app operatesas one might expect: users take a picture of a mole; the photo is sent to Skin Scan’s servers; Skin Scan’s algorithm analyzes the image; and results are sent back to the user. The app won’t diagnose any condition, but will visually point out abnormalities and will rate moles from low-risk to high-risk. It also refers users to nearby doctors. It’s Skin Scan’s mobile delivery model that makes it so potentially valuable, though.

As co-founder and CEO Victor Anastasiu explained to me, the company is building an analytic database to help make sense of the information it’s uncovering. Using users’ location data, for example, Skin Scan can map the world based on frequency or severity of lesions. Over time, Anastasiu said, Skin Scan should be able to determine how rates are improving or worsening, which is important because skin cancer is often best analyzed over time.

Building time-space models based on mobile data is nothing new, of course. Companies such as Google (s goog) and Apple (s aapl) are already using anonymous location data to map traffic flows, and another SmartCamp finalist, BitCarrier, is peddling a system to city governments that lets them see traffic flow in real time based on wireless location data and react accordingly.

But Skin Scan has grander plans than even a database. Mircea Popa, another Skin Scan employee, brought up the possibility of disrupting the dermatology system as a whole. One of the company’s next steps is to digitally connect doctors and users via its platform. If doctors can examine patients’ moles without in-person visits, it saves everybody time and money. For offices that are particularly overbooked, Popa thinks Skin Scan could get them to the point where they see only the most-serious cases via office visits.

These are long-term goals, though. For now, Skin Scan is working to gain enough users to get its algorithms as accurate as possible (they’re about 70 percent accurate in assessing severity, Anastasiu said, compared with about 85 percent by dermatologists) and to build a meaningful global data set. Whether or not Skin Scan succeeds, though, its ambitions should resonate with others who want to effect change by leveraging the global reach and broad accessibility of mobile devices.