How can this app reduce human error in tumour studies?

4 Sep 2018

The Overwatch Research team. Image: TechWatch

TechWatch editor Emily McDaid talks to the team behind Overwatch Research, a digital platform that offers a xenograft tracking solution.

Here’s how life-saving drugs are born: first, they’re developed; then, they go through years of testing, first on animals, then humans; and the safe ones finally come to market. The whole process takes, on average, 15 years.

But in a world where everything seems to be digitised, research scientists have no standard digital platform to store and share their pre-clinical data.

“To prove that a new drug is reliable and safe, you have to be able to replicate research results in different labs. At present, 50pc of pre-clinical research can’t be replicated – at a cost of £22bn per year – and much of that is down to human error,” said Chris Armstrong, co-founder of Overwatch Research.

He continued: “As a scientist, my toolkit is a pen, a notebook and Microsoft Excel. Somewhere along the line, I’ll type in the wrong numbers or not be able to read my own writing, and things get lost in translation.”

Chris teamed up with a set of brothers who brought exactly the skills needed to form a start-up. Co-founders Graham and Paul Wilsdon bring development and design experience, respectively, and they brought Chris’ concept to life in a complete enterprise software package.

What does Overwatch track?

Chris said: “All of the study design is set in one format. Data analysis and tracking is all automated, so responsibility is removed from the researchers.”

Is Overwatch a software or a set of protocols, or both?

Graham said: “The protocols are embedded in the software – you’re able to select the type of experiment you want to do. Then, the way the data is tracked and analysed is consistent all the way through.”

The popular chicken eatery Nando’s is an unlikely setting for a spark of invention but that’s where Overwatch was conceived. It has snowballed quickly from there.

Chris said: “Over dinner at Nando’s, I laid out my ideas, and Graham and Paul said the development was feasible. That was around 14 months ago and we started with wire frames and sketches. In February 2018, we attacked it full-time. We were accepted on to the Propel pre-accelerator and both Graham and Paul quit their jobs to focus on product development. We’re all in now.”

That snowball might be an avalanche soon. The men were discussing possible plans to move to the US on the day we met.

Where is Overwatch going next?

Paul responded: “We officially launched the product just last week. We’ve been in trial officially with contract research organisations, one of them based in Coleraine.”

He continued: “We’re talking to a number of facilities over in America, including universities and pharmaceutical companies. We have warm leads in Boston, Dublin, London and Australia.”

The team explains to me the systematic approach taken to R&D so far.

Graham said: “Over these 14 months, we’ve spoken to many researchers and we kept iterating. We didn’t commit to writing any code until we were confident of what we were making. Instead of making it overly complex, we needed to get a prototype out quickly. Mentors told us it’s about doing one thing really well, instead of 25 things OK.”

I presume it’s cloud-based?

Graham said: “It needs to be accessible from mobile, tablet, desktop, because researchers move around and they attend conferences; they can check on their experiment from anywhere.”

Chris said: “Academic facility and the CRO can all have instant communication and collaboration on the projects. That’s important for time-saving.”

Overwatch’s platform also supports Bluetooth-enabled calipers that are used for measurement in experiments.

Graham said: “We’re trying to get around transcription error by building in as many hardware implements as possible.”

The close-knit founders then explain to me how being friends and family was crucial to their early success.“I wouldn’t want to start a business with strangers. We’ve grown up together, and we’re completely honest with each other,” said Paul, the elder Wilsdon.

Chris said: “The Co-Founders programme at Catalyst was massively important to us – getting us on the right track, providing mentors and connecting us to the right people in Belfast’s tech ecosystem.”

Paul added: “Half of success is just showing up – it’s true.”

What else do you want people to know?

“Have you seen our promotional video? You need to see it,” Paul said excitedly. He previously worked at Kainos in design, and it occurs to me that they’re probably missing his energy.

Chris added: “We also want to communicate the message that for pharmaceutical companies, sometimes drugs are dead ends and that could come at a cost of £2bn to £5bn per drug that they’ve already spent. With our system, they could find that sooner.”

Will you take investment?

“We’re currently playing out the idea of bootstrapping,” said Graham.

Paul agrees. “Now we’re thinking, well, is it possible? Because of all the leads we’ve gotten.”

Chris said: “If we’d be able to build the business based on revenue, we’d be happy to take it that way. However, we do see the need to scale fast, and investment may help to achieve that. We are keeping our options open.”

By Emily McDaid, editor, TechWatch

A version of this article originally appeared on TechWatch

Overwatch Research is a finalist in the annual Invent competition run by Connect at Catalyst Inc, aiming to showcase the best and brightest innovators that Northern Ireland has to offer. Invent 2018 will take place on Thursday 11 October in Belfast, where 12 finalists will battle it out for a £33,000 prize fund.

TechWatch by Catalyst covered tech developments in Northern Ireland