Joanna Shields, tech luminary and CEO of BenevolentAI, on the state of UK startups and the potential of AI

Alexandra Mousavizadeh
6 min readMay 20, 2020

Joanna Shields has been a key player in the UK tech industry for several decades. She was, among other things, the UK’s first Minister for Internet Safety and Security, Under Secretary of State, Special Advisor on the Digital Economy, and Chair & CEO of TechCityUK.

More recently she has been working as CEO of BenevolentAI, a world leader in the development and application of artificial intelligence and machine learning to understand the underlying causes of disease, accelerate drug discovery and develop new and more effective medicines.

Here she talks about the challenges that Covid19 has presented the UK tech community, Benevolent’s response to the virus and and the importance of collaboration

What are the key challenges that Covid19 has presented the tech community, and how do they go about solving them?

On an operational level, the tech community has the advantage of being well equipped to work remotely. The industry has embraced this new way of working so well that just in the last few weeks Google announced the continuation of remote working through the end of the year and Twitter announced that they are offering WFH permanently as an option to their employees.

Like so many other companies, one challenge we’ve faced is how to learn to work from home whilst retaining our culture and team spirit. It is apparent from my conversations with teams across our business how much we all miss connecting with each other. What helps us with this is the fact that we have a very unique mission that unites us and guides us no matter where in the world we are currently — which is to preserve human life. At Benevolent we have a saying which is ‘we don’t do what we do because it’s easy, but because it is difficult and because it matters’. And that mantra rings true more than ever during this crisis.

In more normal times, our scientists co-create with technologists using our state of the art AI models and algorithms to explore the vast and ever-growing corpus of biological facts and data. We use our knowledge graph to better understand the underlying causes of diseases and to design more effective medicines for diseases that have no effective treatment. Navigating this complex scientific and computational process is pure alchemy under normal circumstances — trying to maintain this with 240 people working from home is tough but 8 weeks into lockdown our squads have been relentless in their determination. We have thankfully successfully pushed forward in developing our own drug discovery projects and our AI research and software development whilst delivering against tight timelines and supporting our research partners and collaborators these past few months.

I’m exceptionally proud that in the face of the growing global health crisis, in January we set up a small specialist scientific team and launched an investigation using our AI drug discovery platform to identify a potential treatment for COVID-19 which has now entered large scale clinical trials across the world. It’s helped us stay close to our values to know that we can continue to be useful to society, and reinforces that inspirational results can still be achieved using purposeful technology even when the world is locked down.

The UK has always had a strong tech startup ecosystem and ranks very highly for AI too. Do you think that the virus will impact on this in any way?

The UK has a strong and vibrant start-up landscape: prior to the coronavirus crisis, it ranked as Europe’s number one start-up nation. This thriving tech community has since proved its worth by stepping up in support of the fight against the virus, in what TechNation labelled as the “most high-tech response to a pandemic in human history”.

While it is true that times of crisis can breed the greatest innovation, indeed the examples outlined above stand testament to how tech can help to save lives, connect businesses and bolster communities, the financial implications of the coronavirus crisis poses a very real threat to the progress of UK tech. Many promising early stage businesses have witnessed swift and severe contractions of investor interest, while others have had funding deals collapse entirely. The evolution of UK tech policy will determine the future of a generation of tech companies and could help retain the growth of Europe’s most promising innovation centres.

There have been promising developments in protecting the status quo in the UK startup ecosystem. In April, the UK Government announced a new £1.25bn funding package for British businesses driving innovation and development.

Such commitment from the Government is essential to stem the loss of groundbreaking research and technology development that will underpin future economic growth. The extra £750m in grants and loans for R&D through Innovate UK was a particularly important recognition of the role science will play in maintaining Britain’s place as a global leader in innovation.

You are the Chief Executive Officer of BenevolentAI and at the forefront of the tech response to developing treatments for Covid19. How are people using AI to find solutions to the impact of Covid19 now and in the future? What innovations are we seeing?

In a pandemic, speed is of the essence — and machines excel in handling data in fast-changing circumstances. Machine learning systems can be harnessed to work as tireless and unbiased super-researchers, analysing chemical, biological and medical databases to produce potential drug leads far faster than humans.

In the case of Benevolent, we have always had a mission to use technology for social good. When COVID19 very first appeared in January, I asked our team whether we could repurpose our technology to explore whether there were any existing drugs that were already available, that could immediately be useful as a potential treatment. Our scientific team explored our Knowledge Graph to review approved drugs. We are excited that the drug we identified, Baricitinib from Eli Lilly, showed great potential. We published data, twice, quickly in the Lancet in February and we are thrilled that Eli Lilly is now advancing it to clinical trials in America. Early tests in Italy already show there is great potential in this drug — and we all hope that drugs, like Baricitinib, will soon be proved to treat this disease as we wait for a vaccine.

While such AI systems will never replace scientists and clinicians, they can save time and money which is crucial in our current climate. And the agnostic approach adopted by machine learning means such platforms can generate new inferences that have been overlooked by traditional research.

It’s also clear that in addition to finding a potential treatment, AI and technologies that support the rapid creation of new models of care to help the NHS and social care services adapt to cope, such as diagnostics and tracking of the virus, are important during these times.

What other ways can technology, especially Artificial Intelligence, help communities to build back better?

I have always believed in the transformative power of technology to change the world for the better. As we venture into this ‘new normal’, this partnership of human intelligence and technology will play a central role in building a world which is safer, more resilient, better connected and fundamentally healthier.

Do you think that the public will be happy sacrificing some of their privacy for safety, such as the use of government tracking apps?

It has never been more important to have timely and accurate data, especially in a pandemic. While the crisis has made clear the importance of collaboration, open innovation and data sharing between governments, academia, researchers and businesses, this must be accomplished in a way that also protects privacy.

In drug discovery specifically, we’ve seen exciting moves to greater levels of open innovation, which will help create richer and better technology to find vital new drugs. COVID-19 has helped accelerate data-sharing agreements and encourage open publication of research results. Alongside dozens of other scientific organizations and businesses, we signed the Wellcome Trust Pledge, to ensure that this and other research findings relevant to the coronavirus outbreak are shared rapidly and openly. Finally, the crisis has provided a glimpse of the beginnings of a more open and adaptable R&D model that can accelerate the delivery of innovative and life-changing outcomes for patients.

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