Meri Williams: Driving tech strategy at a start-up using AI for drug discovery

23 Oct 2020

Image: Meri Williams

Healx’s Meri Williams discusses building a tech team that is trying to make the treatment discovery process faster using data and AI.

Meri Williams is an experienced tech leader who has worked for UK challenger bank Monzo, print and design company Moo, and the UK’s Government Digital Service.

Williams is currently chief technology officer at biotechnology start-up Healx. The company, which is based in Cambridge, is working to discover new treatments for rare disease patients using AI. It raised $56m in Series B funding last year.

‘One of the nice things about start-ups is that they tend to be more digitally native’

Describe your role and your responsibilities in driving tech strategy.

I’m chief technology officer at Healx, an AI and data-driven technology company focused on finding treatments for rare disease patients at scale. Defining and driving the technology strategy and investment is one of my key responsibilities, along with nurturing and leading the tech organisation at Healx, contributing as an executive to the overall company strategy and delivery, and developing future leaders for the company. 

Are you spearheading any major product or IT initiatives you can tell us about?

Right now we are focused on developing the next generation of our data platform, which underpins the AI and bioinformatics products that we build to help our scientists, curators, pharmacologists and clinicians to develop new rare disease treatments.

We’re also introducing some new specialisms to the technology team to broaden our capabilities, including product management, user research, product design, ops engineering and more. We have a number of super interesting and useful methods and tools for selecting diseases to work on and predicting which drugs could be successfully repurposed. These new specialisms will help us ensure that we wrap those up into products that are useful and usable and hopefully even delightful, so that we can have maximum impact. 

How big is your team?

Today we have around 25 technologists – roughly half of the company – who are a mix of software engineers, applied AI scientists, bioinformaticians, computational systems biologists, ops engineers, data engineers, product designers, product managers and so on. We’re planning to grow to around 50 technologists by early 2021, so we’re doubling the team in under six months.

Developing a deep understanding of the domain in which we operate is essential to make the biggest breakthroughs, so we tend to mostly focus on hiring permanent staff, rather than outsourcing. Alongside leveraging our own talent, we aim to stand on the shoulders of giants by taking advantage of improvements, products, platforms and frameworks that are already available.

We focus on building just what is most essential and pivotal to Healx’s mission. For everything else, we’ll typically try to select the best software-as-a-service offering from another company.

What are your thoughts on digital transformation and how are you addressing it?

I’ve been through a number of digital transformations, including working at the Government Digital Service in the early days.

One of the nice things about start-ups is that they tend to be more digitally native, given most processes and procedures have been developed anew, and more modern technology is selected when they start. So luckily we don’t have a lot of digital transformation to do, though we do intend to bring technology to bear to help make the full end-to-end treatment discovery process faster and more efficient, whilst still of course being fully compliant with the important and essential regulatory requirements.

What big tech trends do you believe are changing the world and your industry specifically?

The way that processing power and storage has increased whilst costs have continued to decrease has made a bunch of things economically viable that weren’t before, from big data and the resulting analysis and insights, to a much broader use of artificial intelligence and more.

I think the other big trend that is helping a lot in medtech is folks realising – largely due to Covid-19 – that some data is genuinely best made freely available, so that more of us can spend time on innovative work by using that data, rather than all doing the same repetitive work to find and make data usable.

I’m grateful for organisations like the Open Data Institute for paving the way over the past years on how to share and publish data effectively, securely and safely, without endangering individual privacy.

In terms of security, what are your thoughts on how we can better protect data?

There are two sides to this.

On the one hand, the increase in computational power I referred to earlier that is becoming more and more affordable means we are in a race in terms of encryption, constantly needing to make sure we are using the right algorithms and approaches. I think we may see mainstream quantum encryption within this decade, and that’s going to be a big shift for a lot of organisations.

On the other hand, the weakest link in terms of security is usually people. It’s a lot easier to use social engineering to get yourself into a data centre than it is to break in through a decent modern firewall. There’s a really fine balance to strike between keeping things secure and making security process so onerous that your employees start to work around it. I think in general security needs to take much more notice of user experience, otherwise we’ll continue to be easy to breach.

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