Q&A: CTO of Healx discusses Covid-19 drug discovery and tech trends

As CTO of Healx, Meri Williams has been overseeing the process of creating a drug combination treatment for Covid-19 and rare diseases with the aid of artificial intelligence (AI).

Williams revealed the company’s scaling strategy, as well as the challenges that the pandemic has posed since she joined Healx in June, and the trends she has seen within the UK tech sector.

How have you been going about scaling Healx’s services in order to maintain drug discovery operations?

Since our drug discovery approach is driven by AI and bioinformatics methods, we have been lucky that much of our operation is already pretty scalable. But we’re continuously investing in Healnet, our drug discovery platform, to improve how many diseases we can find drug match potentials for in parallel. Healnet already has over a billion unique data points connecting diseases, symptoms and drugs, but that’s just the beginning!

My focus since joining in June has largely been on scaling the team itself, investing in the continued professional development of our current staff and attracting new specialists to add to our current capabilities. In particular, we are adding in new capabilities in product management, user research, product design, data engineering and ops engineering. These new recruits will largely focus on taking a user-centric approach to building out products that enable our resident expert curators, pharmacologists and clinical team to operate as efficiently as possible.

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What challenges has the pandemic posed to your work so far, and how have you overcome them?

For the Healx team, we actually moved to being fully distributed (i.e all working from home) before the original UK lockdown started in March, having seen the impact of Covid-19 in the original hotspots and putting our employees’ health first.

Given our focus on rare diseases, many of the team have a close link to rare disease patients – such as being one themselves (like I am!), or having close family members who have rare diseases – and so are generally more likely to be at higher risk from a viral outbreak like this. The whole team adapted very well to working in this distributed manner, and for those of us who already didn’t travel to the Cambridge office every day it now feels like we are all on an equal footing (the team includes folks in Spain, Greece, USA and Hungary, and a number of UK-based folks who don’t live near Cambridge).

Of course, we have all faced challenges in terms of physical and mental health, particularly those with caring responsibilities. It’s been great to see the team pull together to support each other, with an open dialogue about the health impact of not just the virus but the effects of lockdown as well. There’s been a lot of flexibility we’ve been able to offer everyone whatever their situation.

But, like many scientific/laboratory-dependent businesses, we have struggled with some of our key partners and suppliers being unable to continue experimental work for us. We are taking it in stride and finding novel ways to make progress in silico even if in vivo and vitro is tough right now.

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What other plans do you have for Healx going forward?

I’m currently in the midst of doubling the size of the technology team, and making further investment in our data platform and infrastructure, as well as our R&D division. There are new developments in AI (particularly NLP and ML, which are both key for us) almost daily, and keeping ahead of the curve requires consistent investment and attention, but I am honoured to work with some of the smartest people around who are deeply passionate about utilising these advances for the good of rare disease patients.

As mentioned previously, we’re also investing in taking a more holistic user-focused product management approach, bringing product designers and user researchers in house, and assembling smart multi-disciplinary teams to make our sophisticated AI and bioinformatics capabilities as usable and useful as possible. Doing the hard work to make the complex simple, as we used to say at GDS (the Government Digital Service).

What trends have you witnessed within the UK tech sector in regards to scale and evolution during the pandemic?

One of the biggest trends I have welcomed in the MedTech sector has been a collective sense of community. Thanks in large to the pandemic, people and organisations across the industry have made data more freely available. This is invaluable for us, as we typically spend our time sourcing data and making it usable – which is a time-consuming and repetitive job. By having access to this data we can dedicate our time to innovative work and drive discoveries that will make an impact for the rare disease community. I’m thankful for the work of organisations like the Open Data Institute who championed and paved the way for sharing and publishing data securely and efficiently, whilst ensuring individual privacy is upheld at all times.

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Another significant trend is that processing power and storage has increased, whilst costs have lowered. This is invaluable for companies such as Healx which require computational power to benefit from big data or broader use of artificial intelligence; this was simply impossible previously because it wasn’t economically viable.

On the human side, I think smart companies are realising that distributed working can be very effective, so long as one adapts and finds new ways to make the sometimes random connections that happen when people bump into each other making tea in the office. But since our team is already spread around the world, it’s a net positive for us to figure out how to achieve this “virtual water cooler” effect in any case, and makes the distributed members of our team (including me) more fully integrated in any case. I don’t want the pandemic to continue longer than it must, but I certainly want to make sure we keep the improvements to our ways of working even after folks can return to being in the office when they want to be.

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Aaron Hurst

Aaron Hurst is Information Age's senior reporter, providing news and features around the hottest trends across the tech industry.