Artificial intelligence – fears and cheers in science and healthcare

Artificial intelligence (AI), defined as the theory and development of computer systems able to perform tasks normally requiring human intelligence, is increasingly being used in healthcare, drug development and scientific research.

The advantages are obvious. AI has the ability to draw on an incredible amount of information to carry out multiple tasks in parallel, with substantially less human bias and error, and without constant supervision.

The problem with human bias is one of particular importance. In case you haven’t seen it, watch Dr Elizabeth Loftus’ TEDtalk, on how humans easily form fictional memories that impact behavior, sometimes with severe consequences. I am not sure to what extent AI can be completely unbiased, programmers may inadvertently skew the importance that AI places on certain types of information. However, its still an improvement from the largely impulsive, emotion-based, and reward-driven human condition.

Applications of AI in healthcare includes its use in diagnosis of disease. IBM’s Watson, a question answering computer system designed to successfully beat two human contestants in the game show Jeopardy! outperformed doctors in diagnosing lung cancer with a 90% success rate, compared to just 50% for the doctors. Watson’s success was attributed to its ability to make decisions based on more than 600,000 pieces of medical evidence, more than two million pages from medical journals and the further ability to search through up to 1.5 million patient records. A human doctor in contrast, typically relies largely on personal experience, with only 20% of his/her knowledge coming from trial-based evidence.

AI systems are also being used to manage and collate electronic medical records in hospitals. Praxis for example uses machine learning to generate patient notes, staff/patient instructions, prescriptions, admitting orders, procedure reports, letters to referring providers, office or school excuses, and bills. It apparently gets faster, the more times it sees similar cases.

In terms of scientific research, AI is being explored in the following applications (companies involved):

  • going through genetic data to calculate predisposition to disease in an effort to administer personalized medicine or to implement lifestyle changes (Deep Genomics, Human Longevity, 23andMe, Rthm)
  • delivery of curated scientific literature based on custom preferences (Semantic ScholarSparrhoMeta now acquired by the Chan-Zuckerberg initiative)
  • going through scientific literature and ‘-omic’ results (i.e. global expression profiles of RNA, protein, lipids etc.) to detect patterns for targeted drug discovery efforts. Also termed de-risking drug discovery (Deep Genomics again, InSilico Medicine, BenevolentAI, NuMedii)
  • in silico drug screening where AI uses machine learning and 3D neural networks of molecular structures to reveal relevant chemical compounds (Atomwise, Numerate)

There is incredible investor interest in AI with 550 startups raising $5 billion in funding in 2016 (not limited to healthcare). Significantly, China is leading the advance in AI with iCarbonX achieving Unicorn status (> $1 billion) in funding. It was founded by Chinese genomicist Jun Wang, who previously managed Beijing Genomic Institute (BGI), one of the world’s sequencing centers that was involved in the Human Genome Project. iCarbonX now competes with Human Longevity in its effort to make sense of large amounts of genetic, imaging, behavioral and environmental data to enhance disease diagnosis or therapy.

Some challenges that AI faces in healthcare is the ultra-conservatism in terms of making changes to current practices. The fact that a large proportion of the healthcare sector do not understand how AI works, makes it more challenging for them to see the utility that AI can bring.

Another problem is susceptibility to data hacking, especially when it comes to patient records. One thing’s for sure, we can’t treat healthcare data the same way we are currently treating credit card data.

Then there’s the inherent fear of computers taking over the world. One that Elon Musk  and other tech giants seem to feel strongly about:



Though he wasn’t fearing computers develop a mind of their own, more so that AI may be unintentionally programmed to self-improve a process that spells disaster for humankind. And with AI having access to human health records, influencing patient management and treatment, and affecting drug development decisions, I think he has every right to be worried! If we’re not careful, we might be letting AI manage healthcare security as well. Oops, we already are: Protenus.


Other Sources:

PharmaVentures Industry insight: “The Convergence of AI and Drug Discovery” by Peter Crane

TechCrunch: “Advances in AI and ML are reshaping healthcare” by Megh Gupta Qasim Mohammad

ExtremeTech: “The next major advance in medicine will be the use of AI” by Jessica Hall

What would you do with 900 million dollars of start-up funding?

America, a land of plenty – plenty of land, plenty of food, plenty of crazy politicians and plenty of start-up funding.

Grail, a company formed by sequencing giant Illumina in Jan 2016, recently obtained a hefty $900 million in Series B financing, after already obtaining $100 million in Series A. Grail aims to screen for cancer mutations in circulating tumour DNA (ctDNA) from blood samples via next-generation sequencing (learn more about this booming field in Sensitive Detection of ctDNA). The money came from several large pharmaceutical companies, Johnson & Johnson purportedly with the largest investment followed by others such as Bristol-Myers Squibb, Celgene and Merck. Interestingly, Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos from Amazon has also invested in Grail, together with the venture arm of medical distributor McKesson, China-based Tencent Holdings, and Varian Medical Systems, a radiation oncology treatment and software maker from Palo Alto.

This is the biggest start-up financing deal in biotech by a long-shot, the largest deal in 2016 went to Human Longevity, Craig Venter’s company that raised $220 million in series B. Another one that came somewhat close was RNA company Moderna Therapeutics, which raised $450 million in 2015.

Grail plans to carry out “high-intensity sequencing” on blood samples from vast numbers of people to detect circulating tumour DNA at early stages, essentially in people not showing any signs cancer, as a means of early detection to enable better treatment. This is an especially challenging feat, given that ctDNA makes up < 1% of circulating DNA found in the blood. But there are some hints that Grail is sitting on promising data sets that have turned skeptics into believers.

There are concerns that testing healthy people for cancer might yield false positives that could subject people to unnecessary and potentially dangerous testing procedures and treatments. This was the case for the Prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test used to screen men at risk for prostate cancer. It turned out that PSA testing did not significantly reduce mortality of men with prostrate cancer but did increase the harms associated with the accompanying treatments and tests, some of which are pretty nasty such as urinary incontinence and erectile dysfunction.

So Grail had better be sure the sensitivity and accuracy of their predictions are full-proof as cancer treatments are not exactly pleasant. They seem to be taking it seriously, judging from their embarkation on an ambitious trial called “The circulating cell-free genome atlas study” where they will recruit more than 10, 000 participants – 7000 newly-diagnosed cancer patients of multiple solid tumour types who have not undergone treatment, and 3000 healthy volunteers.  The trial is already recruiting and is projected to be completed within 5 years by Aug 2022, with a primary outcome measure available by Sept this year. Grail hopes to detect shifts in cancer stage severity as they perform their tests over time. How accurately their tests reflect other clinical readouts would give appropriate proof of its reliability. Likely, more trials involving more patients would be necessary to determine if this form of testing is full-proof and whether it may even replace tissue biopsies as a gold standard in cancer diagnosis.

Grail has even drafted plans to make their form of testing available to the medical community by 2019, subject to experimental results. An incredibly ambitious timeline, so its no wonder they need the big amounts of cash to drive it through. Jeff Huber, a former Google Exec, is Grail’s new CEO. His wife Laura died of colorectal cancer, so his new job also fulfils a personal mission. Other members of the team include other former employees from Illumina and Google, including Verily CSO/founder Vikram Bajaj. The Google Life Science company Verily have recently received a similarly outstanding investment of $800 million from who would have guessed, Singapore Temasek Holdings.

The scale of investment in America seriously dwarfs that found in the European biotech scene. Despite conservatives highlighting a potential bubble in US biotech and Trump’s anti-pharma sentiment that may signal a potential decline in available funding, one cannot deny that the lofty research goals being currently undertaken, can only yield an incredible expansion of scientific knowledge. In my opinion, science is expensive, and the more money you have, the more science you can do. They key thing though, is to make sure its good science!



Steps to building a successful Startup

Here it is, my very first infographic:


Disclaimer: It may look easy but its not. i.e. making the infographic….. and building a successful startup of course.


Startup terms you should know

In the startup world, there are several terms that are often thrown around which can become pretty confusing for the uninitiated. So to avoid any head-scratching moments, here is a list of the key few and what they mean:

Note: Some of these terms shall be used again in an upcoming post “Steps to building a successful startup”, so make sure to go through all of them!

1. USP – Unique selling proposition

That special factor that differentiates your company from others and provides benefit to consumers of your product/service. Could be a novel technology, a new approach to doing something already available that either makes it cheaper  or more attractive, a special business culture or a novel focus on a niche market.

2. Deep tech

This is a rather new one and is used to describe companies that use completely novel technology as opposed to currently available technology. Makes the company look more sexy to investors. Not to be confused with deep learning which is a fancy term thrown around by tech geeks to describe a better version of machine learning.

3. Runway

How much time you have before your investor money runs out.

4. B2B, B2C

Often used to describe the nature of your product/service, whether its being sold to businesses i.e. business to business; or directly to consumer i.e. business to consumer

5. Exit

How you want the company to end successfully and make everyone (i.e. investors and startup founders) rich. Either comes in the form of an IPO (initial public offering) where the company gets listed on a stock exchange which allows investors a chance to liquidate their shares, or a buyout, where another company buys the founded company and investors get their ROI (see next).

6. ROI – Return of investment

What the investor would receive when the company exits. Usually expressed as a ratio: (gain from investment – cost of investment)/cost of investment.

7. SaaS – Software as a service

A company model where licences/subscriptions are sold to users to obtain access to a cloud-based software.

8. Vesting

Where employees/co-founders get given shares but receive them over a period of time rather than at one go in order to get them to stay at the company for a longer time. It may follow a vesting schedule where one gets a small portion every year and may include a “cliff” where shares are given only after a fixed period.

9. Unicorns, centaurs and ponies

Derived from Silicon Valley and are used to describe companies with different scales of valuation. Unicorns are valued at over $1 billion, Centaurs at over $100 million and My little Ponies at greater than $10 million.

10. IP – intellectual property

Refers to a creation of the mind that you want to protect, usually by patenting it or keeping it extremely secret (e.g. the recipe for Coke).

11. Traction

Evidence that the company is growing or has potential for growth. This can be shown via customer response or actual revenue.

12. Valuation

This is how much your company is worth in the eyes of investors. Its pretty difficult to decide this in the early stages. Usually investors will come up with this by analyzing similar companies (i.e. your competitors) and seeing how much they are valued.  See here for an infographic on the calculation process. The valuation can be affected by factors such as founder reputation or prior success, traction, current distribution channels (e.g. if you already have an established channel like a blog with a million views by which you can reach many potential customers), and industry buzz like if you happen to be working on the hot topic of the month.

Valuation is also split into pre-money and post-money valuation. If your company was valued by an investor as being worth $1 million for example. That is the pre-money valuation. If the investor decides to invest half a million, the post-money valuation = $1 million + $0.5 million = $1.5 million and the investor now owns 33.3% of your company.

13. Funding rounds: Seed, Series A, B, C..

The seed funding round is the first investment round where a company gets money – usually from friends/family, angel investors, incubators/accelerators or via crowd-funding. Following which a company could approach VCs (Venture Capitalists) for funding rounds named Series A, the next funding round being Series B and so on. The number of rounds can apparently go on as long as the company wants to remain private and not do an IPO. Uber for example went up to Series G! Another nice infographic with more detailed info on startup funding sources here.

14. Venture Capital

Money from a fund run by venture capitalists which pools money from various investors and invests in a portfolio of companies.

15. Angel Investor

A rich individual that provides capital to a startup in return for a stake in the company.

16. Crowd-funding

Getting money from the public masses. Often done through online platforms , see here for a list.

17. Accelerator/Incubator

An organisation that supports startups either in terms of office space, funding, mentorship/guidance and access to professional networks. Most of them take some equity from the company in exchange. Accelerators are said to be for more mature startups while incubators for the newborns but they are often used interchangeably.

18. Due Diligence

A detailed investigation into a business done by investors/companies looking to acquire it. Often involves in-depth analysis of a business’ assets and liabilities to determine its commercial value.

19. Proof-of-concept

Demonstration that your idea is actually feasible and is often required to get VC funding.

20. MVP – Minimum viable product

The simplest version of your product that is required to achieve proof-of-concept.

21. Pivot

When you have to quickly alter the position of your company either by changing the target market, or the application of your product in order to survive in the market.

22. NDA – Non-disclosure agreement

What one signs when a company/individual doesn’t want you spilling their secrets.

23. CRM – Customer relationship management

A system or software used by companies to consolidate customer information so that staff can easily access, manage and record interactions with customer, with a goal to track business performance and drive sales.

24. Burn rate

The money a company is burning through every month before breaking even or making profit.

25. Bridge loans or Mezzanine financing

These are hybrid loans in the form of cash or equity/options given to more mature companies which are cash-positive usually in preparation for an IPO.

26. SOPs – Standard operating procedures

Step-by-step instructions of procedures important for running of the business that employees follow to improve efficiency and communication within organization and to maintain a high quality and uniformity of the product.

Startups – creating value for customers and communicating them

Getting people to buy your product/service can be a challenging process. How do you make your product/service desirable to customers? Bain & Company did a nice infographic on the 30 things that customers value shown below:


Companies that deliver more elements of value perform better i.e. have more loyal customers and a faster revenue growth rate than companies that don’t. Makes logical sense. As to what ranks highest, quality is deemed the topmost priority across all industries. After which, depending upon the industry, values are ranked differently e.g. food and beverage have sensory appeal ranked second highest while tech industries rank functional elements – avoids hassle, saves time, organizes etc. – next highest. Values that are in the emotional category are also ranked higher than those in the functional category.

One thing I realised apart from the importance of bringing value to customers, is the necessity of effective marketing and communication. I work for a startup which offers a life science reagent of higher quality than what is currently available. The founders thought since this was the case, the product would sell itself. But this is only the case if the value provided was blatantly obvious. The problem we faced was no one noticed that what they currently use was inferior unless they looked at certain indicators (which they would normally not study). I’m talking about siRNA and their off-target effects, for those scientists out there:

Most siRNAs are inherently non-specific, knocking down many genes in addition to the target gene. But because most scientists only measure the knock-down of their target gene, they do not see the numerous off-target genes that also get deregulated. They are thus left with the impression that the reagent is working fine. It’s only when screening a large number of siRNAs do these off-target effects become apparent. Go here to learn more.

Anyway, unless the value is obvious, like PokemonGo – Nostalgia, fun, sensory appeal etc. – one needs to really work hard on communicating the values to customers. And usually, the values that most products/services bring need to bring drummed into customers. This is what drives the advertising industry, and funds the paychecks of marketing and sales  consultants. So for those startup owners – what values are you delivering, and.. are they obvious?

How important is your Start-up’s website?

We have reached the age where internet trumps TV (proof: I do not even own a TV) and as such, having a website is essential for any business. For those who would seek to disagree, let’s look at the statistics. A study carried out by Adobe in 2015 on an n number of 2, 008 consumers aged 18 and above in the US reported that consumers use an average of 6 devices and consume 12 sources of content. The most popular source of content by Millennials (1983-2000) and Gen X (1960-1984) is online search engines, with only the Baby Boomers (1946-1964) relying on TV as their primary source.

Being faced with massive amounts of information in all its forms, many of us often lead rather distracted lives (though only 40% admitted to this in the survey). Just think about how long you spent on a single website before moving on to something else or returning to browsing your endlessly exciting Facebook feed. Not suprisingly, to cut through the noise, things that capture our attention tend to be of high entertainment/aesthetic value. Accuracy, on the other hand, is losing its importance (just look at the Brexit voting campaign for further convincing evidence), with 58% of Millennials spreading content without fact-checking. Across all ages, majority crave content that is beautifully designed as opposed to plain when given only 15 minutes to consume said media. That said, what key things should your website have that would not chase your potential customers away?

Makings of a good website:

  • Fast load time: Up to 40% of consumers will stop engaging if a page takes too long to load or if images do not load.
  • Short, listed content: Up to 40% of consumers stop engaging if content is too long. Furthermore, 70% of people look at lists with bullet points while only 55% look at lists without (add them bullets!)
  • Attractive design: Up to 40% of consumers stop engaging if the page is too ugly! Sites with dark colour schemes, using green/blue tend to show better growth. Interestingly, sites that use red report negative growth! Good website design also leads to better trust. More trust is garnered when using links to media coverage, logos of well-reputed clients and showcasing social media followers while avoiding stock photography and pre-made templates. See here for infographic.
  • Compatibility on all devices: 25% of consumers stop engaging if the page does not display well on chosen device. And note that for Millennials, their smartphone is the top device used on a daily basis. Having smartphone compatibility also boosts your search ratings on Google.
  • Clear contact information: 44% of consumers will stop engaging if contact information is absent or not clearly visible on the website. Source.
  • Clear calls-to-action: The website exists for several purposes. To let the consumer learn more about your product/service, to allow for them to easily purchase it, and to let them know how to contact you. Make sure these actions can be easily found and not hidden on your website.
  • Incorporating video: 66% of consumers rather watch videos on breaking news as opposed to reading an article.

What if you do not have the money to employ an amazing graphic/web designer? I highly recommend using 99designs:

It’s a nifty platform that allows you to hold a contest (with contest types ranging widely from webdesign, graphic illustration, logos etc.) where designers from all over the world submit their designs to compete for a cash reward. You would basically have to choose the package you want – bronze, silver, gold, platinum – which corresponds to number of designs you would receive and quality of designers involved. For web designs, a bronze package requires 549 Euros.

The quality of web design can still be good with a bronze package, it really depends on your brief (i.e. how you describe your project), and how much effort you want to put in to advertise your contest. With a clear, inspiring brief, consistent and positive feedback and motivation, and extra efforts to invite good designers to join your contest, I was able to get many excellent designs for a contest I created. It may take a bit of time to give the feedback so hold the contest when you have sufficient time. The more feedback you give (and make sure its consistent feedback), the better the designers understand what you want and oftentimes they are very keen to create many designs for you. It’s great design on a budget and also lets you get to know many good graphic designers. Furthermore, there’s a money-back guarantee if you are not happy with the designs. But I found that guaranteeing the prize money often increased the number of entries, but only do this when you’re confident you’re likely going to be using them.

Of course, even with the perfect website, there are still many things that influence traffic to your site. Things like search engine optimization, social media, advertising, etc. But I shall cover these topics on a separate post. To receive updates once a new entry is written, click Follow on the right! 😉