CEO PERSPECTIVE: Jackie Hunter PhD, CEO, BenevolentBio and Director, BenevolentAI
Interview with Jackie Hunter PhD DSc CBE FBPharmacolS FmedSci, Chief Executive Officer, BenevolentBio and Director, BenevolentAI
BenevolentAI is a fast-developing disruptive technology company which uses a unique proprietary AI technology with the potential to revolutionise R&D by enabling the mass analysis of vast datasets of scientific information. Founded in 2013 by the management team of Proximagen, BenevolentAI has two distinct business units: BenevolentBio, which applies BenevolentAI’s technology to drug discovery and development and provides the company with the insight it needs to significantly improve the pharmaceutical R&D process, and BenevolentTech which refines and develops the company’s technology and replicates its initial success across wider applications and industries.
Coulter:Pulse recently interviewed Jackie Hunter to learn more about Artificial Intelligence and the role that BenvolentAI is playing in this highly innovative area of bioscience division BenevolentBio where she directs the application of BenevolentAI’s technology for drug development. She was formerly CEO of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and prior to this SVP of Science Environment Development for GlaxoSmithKline. In 2010, Jackie received a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list for Services to the Pharmaceutical Industry and was awarded the 2010 Women of Achievement in Science, Engineering and Technology (SET) in the category SET Discovery, Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
Coulter:Pulse – What do you see as the most promising advances and notable trends in Artificial Intelligence in the Life Sciences sector?
Jackie – There are endless possibilities for Artificial Intelligence in Life Sciences. I see Life Sciences as broader than biomedical sciences and encompassing other disciplines too such as agri-tech and veterinary medicine. In biomedical science, there are already applications for AI that are beginning to show great promise. These include wearables, mobile health, health analytics for wellness and diagnostics. Although there are still some issues to be overcome, there is no doubt that machine learning approaches to tumour diagnosis, for example, or MRI imaging classifications are more efficient and accurate in many cases than human diagnosis can achieve. I think this will have a tremendous impact in terms of healthcare delivery across typically overstretched health services. The application of AI to diagnostics will allow medical practitioners to focus their attention on the more difficult cases and eliminate much of the routine work that is so burdensome.
In terms of drug discovery and development, the use of AI and machine learning for better target identification is something we’re focused on at BenevolentBio. It is something that clearly has huge potential because of the ability to tap into a much wider set of data than has hitherto been possible. There are also applications in the design of new compounds and in the stratification of patients based on their genetic data for clinical trials. All the way along the value chain from very basic discovery in biological science right through to real world outcomes, we’re beginning to see the application of AI.
I think that companies will gradually realise that AI is something they will have to integrate into the organisation rather than running series of pilot programmes. Some companies are doing this through collaboration quite successfully, but I think, fundamentally, to deliver real value, a different culture and a different way of thinking is required. The industry needs to prepare for a new way of obtaining data, a new way of using that data and a new way of analysing that data. Just as molecular biology came along in the 1980s, revolutionising pharmacology and drug discovery, and becoming embedded in organisations, I think the whole digital health agenda, including artificial intelligence, will fundamentally have to become integrated in every aspect of the business. A great deal of this sort of technology is already here and where companies are falling behind, this is more to do with people readiness than technology readiness.
It’s important to get people to talk to each other and I still encounter plenty of reluctance to embrace the ideas and potential in Artificial Intelligence. I was giving a talk recently and a professor of pathology stood up and said I was talking complete nonsense! His premise was that we will never replace people for analysing pathology specimens. I referred him to our aim of making people more efficient by allowing them to focus on the things they need to focus on; rather than trawling through thousands of scans that are normal, they can focus on the ones that are abnormal. He took issue with the premise that machines could detect normality, but I think that the machines are in fact proving him wrong.
Coulter:Pulse – Please can you give us some insights into the role that BenevolentAI is playing in this field? What are the challenges?
Jackie – I take great pride in the fact that we are beginning to deliver results and I’m excited by what we are achieving in developing new targets, new hypotheses and improving the efficiency of the process in the way we create new molecules. We are trying to drive a change in R&D and how we go about it and we’ve had to work quite hard as a company to create a new kind of culture to allow this to happen. It has inevitably involved adopting methodology from the technology side. We now have multi-functional and cross-functional squads with drug discoverers, data analysts and systems engineers. This enables us to focus the technology much more on the problems the drug discovery scientists are facing.
Another key goal for us is to try and stimulate a dialogue between bio-scientists, the biomedical community and the tech community. Recently we had a very successful second AI in Bioscience symposium at the British Library where people from industry and academia came together to talk about the applications of the technology. A panel towards the end of the day provided an opportunity to discuss some of the ethical issues and implications to watch out for. With our partners in the knowledge quarter, we have a quarterly special interest group in AI and biomedicine. It is very important to us that as well as driving our own agenda and portfolio ahead, we are also trying to play a leadership role in bringing the whole community together – innovators from both the tech sector and the bio sector. Frequently, people don’t know who to approach or don’t even know that there may be a technological solution to the problems they face. In many cases, they haven’t even thought to ask the question because they don’t realise the potential that AI can bring. A key role we play is in opening people’s eyes to what is possible.
There is plenty of excitement and interest now and we were oversubscribed for the symposium last week. Creating awareness in a special interest forum enables people to interact informally as a stepping stone to collaborating more formally. Scientists and academics from the Francis Crick Institute, Digital Catapult, UCL and industry, for instance, can come together to share ideas and educate one another. We underestimate at our peril the need to prepare people for the technology. This means engaging people, including the wider public, and creating a dialogue with those from other industries who are also making advances in the world of AI.
Coulter:Pulse – Are you partnering with big pharma companies as well to achieve your aims?
Jackie – We are talking to various companies about potential collaborations. We licensed some molecules from Johnson & Johnson last year, as has been widely publicised. We are repositioning these assets in new indications.
It has been interesting because we are not a service provider and don’t sell our AI solutions to other companies. We want to collaborate with them instead in a different business model, working together to identify new targets or to find new uses for compounds that have stalled in development. This is not a fee for service business model and some companies find that very difficult to understand, whereas others really get it.
Coulter:Pulse – How important is it to find and attract the right talent and leadership for a model like this?
Jackie – It is absolutely critical. The human element is so important. True diversity of talent is what we look for; people who can be very accepting of different ways of working and more diverse approaches. Going forward, the application of technology will require the right blend of technology specialists, drug discovery specialists and scientists but, more crucially, people who can act as bridges between these two groups while they are getting to understand each other. Frequently we think we are speaking the same language but often we mean something completely different. Good communicators and leaders are essential as well as people who are more operationally savvy and focussed. The right talent is essential and the UK is fortunate in that we have exceptional life scientists and excellent artificial intelligence practitioners and deep learning experts. But we are going to need more of these skilled people in future and one of the things I feel passionate about is trying to develop a really good pipeline of women in this area.
Only 11% of software engineers currently are women. The Royal College of Engineering says we will soon need another million skilled people in the sector to maintain our leadership, so it is essential that we tap into the female half of the population. This really needs to start at school. A-level statistics show that only 10% of computer science students are women and in fact the total number of people studying computer sciences is still very low in this country by comparison with traditional subjects like maths.
Coulter:Pulse – Would you say there is a talent shortage then in AI and are you finding it easy to compete for the sort of skills you have outlined?
Jackie – We are in a strong position to attract top talent to this exciting space, but there aren’t always the right people out there to be found – we need people who are excellent in AI and bioscience and also people who can combine the two. I have people on the bioscience side who are brilliant and truly understand the technology, but they’re very few and far between. We need to get this machine learning and AI approach integrated much more into bioscience courses along with systems biology. Incorporating these digital skills as an integral part of PhD training and even basic degree training is very important. A lot of university departments, degree courses and funding bodies tend to be siloed in the old way of doing things. I would like to see much more interdisciplinarity. This is happening in certain areas but, for the UK to maintain leadership, we really need to move faster.
Coulter:Pulse – Is the UK leading the way do you think in AI?
Jackie – Yes, I think we really are leading the way and that is why companies like Google want to come here. We have excellent institutions like the Crick, UCL, Imperial, and Turing. But the US and China are of course following very closely at our heels.
Coulter:Pulse – Is Brexit having an effect on all this?
Jackie – The uncertainty is most definitely having an effect and I worry about the consequences of restriction on the movement of EU nationals. Over half our workforce is from the EU so if the visa system does not allow free movement of skilled talent, it will be devastating not just for industry but also for universities. International students are vital financial contributors to the university system in this country, especially in stem subjects.
Coulter:Pulse – What other challenges are there in this space?
Jackie – One of the challenges faced by smaller companies is accessing data. There is a great deal of publicly available data but for more specific applications accessing data can be difficult. This is where government policy can again play an important role.
Coulter:Pulse – Please could you tell us about some of the defining moments in your own career that have brought you to this point?
Jackie – You might say I was a bit of an imposter in the AI world since most of my background is in Pharma! A key defining moment for me was when I first became Vice President and then was promoted to Senior Vice President and Head of the Neurology & GI Centre for Excellence in Drug Discovery at GlaxoSmithKline. That was a really important milestone because it was just like running my own business. We had our own devolved budget and a team of nearly 400 people and we did a great deal of excellent work. We were ahead of our time doing PK/PD modelling and adaptive trials and achieved several positive Phase II studies.
I then moved on into open innovation and raising funds for the Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst. Developing GSK’s open innovation strategy was interesting for me because it was more of a consultancy than a line management role and this exposed me to many other industries. Following this, I was CEO of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council which was a tremendous honour. There, I had the chance to experience other aspects of Life Sciences including agri-tech, plants, veterinary medicine and bioenergy.
Now here I am at BenevolentBio and still learning all the time. While I may not be in the business of writing algorithms, I understand the applications to which they can be put and the questions that can be asked while applying them. And although I have managed technology specialists and people outside my discipline before, it is especially rewarding to help create the cultural changes in the company and see the advances that these are enabling. The challenges around the pace of development in Artificial Intelligence are truly staggering. And I am enjoying every minute!
For further information please visit http://benevolent.ai/