CHICAGO — Abu Qader said he's always sought to answer the hardest problems.
"I feel better when I solve these problems because a lot of these problems plague people," he said. "And the biggest problems are always the ones most worth solving."
His father, Nasir, said it's always been this way. As a sixth-grader at West Ridge's Stone Academy, Abu separated hydrogen from oxygen in water cells and used the hydrogen as a fuel source.
"He has never backed away from a challenge," said Nasir Qader, of Sauganash.
His son is now 17 and a senior-to-be at Lane Tech College Prep. He also is co-founder of GliaLab, a startup that uses software to help doctors accurately identify breast cancer tumors. The software takes data on breast cancer tumors to build predictive models. Abu and his co-founder, European entrepreneur Vedad Mešanović, are seeking $600,000 in funding and have recently been approached by four different venture capital firms.
Abu's company — named after Glial brain cells that are linked to intelligence — also is in the process of obtaining partnerships with hospitals in Europe. The software has the potential to be a cheaper and effective way to classify breast cancer tumors than mammograms, which are about 84 percent accurate for diagnosing, and MRIs, blood tests and genetic tests, Abu said.
"A lot of people might not think we're serious because of my age, but we are," said Abu, who was born in Afghanistan but has spent almost all of his life in Chicago.
"The goal at the end of the day is to help people. Whether we make a lot of money or nothing, that doesn't matter to us," he said. "It may be the worst model ever, but our goal isn't to make millions or become famous. We want to create a tool that exists around the world that's cheap and effective."
Abu's mentality doesn't surprise his teachers at Lane Tech. Daniel Law, Abu's Advance Placement computer science teacher and the coach of Lane's robotics team, said Abu is "especially mature for his age." As a junior, Abu joined the junior varsity robotics team, but by the time the year ended, he had been named the varsity squad's captain.
"The most telling part of all this is that his teammates, some who've been on the team for years, have absolutely accepted his new role as team captain," said Law, of Canaryville. "And his best quality is that he takes the time to understand why he screwed up and fix it."
Mohamed Danja, an Arabic and French instructor, described Abu as a student who "regularly stood out in class as a leader." Jennifer Roscoe, who was Abu's teacher in several computer classes, said he "always was very interested in applying computer science concepts in a functional way to make in impact."
Abu came up with the GliaLab idea as a sophomore in one of Roscoe's classes. He chose to tackle breast cancer first because many of his friends' families had been impacted by the disease. The goal is for the company to expand to other forms of medical based diagnostic software.
For senior year, Abu will be taking AP computer science principles, AP microeconomics, AP statistics, AP literature, honors sound engineering, honors digital images and honors neuroscience. He also plays singles and doubles on Lane's varsity tennis team in addition to his robotics club efforts.
He hasn't chosen a college, but said Stanford and Illinois are two dream schools because of the technology programs they offer.
And Abu said he will never stop trying to decipher difficult problems.
"I've got a lot of ideas, so we'll see," he said.
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