There are around 3,400 new cases of thyroid cancer in the UK each year, and over the last decade, thyroid cancer incidence rates have increased by 74 per cent. Professor Neil Tolley and I are members of the Imperial Healthcare NHS Trust Thyroid Cancer MDT, and have meetings each week about patients being investigated for thyroid cancer. These meetings are time and resource consuming and, recognising there is also an element of human error, the idea for Artificial Intelligence Thyroid Diagnostics came about.
Professor Tolley is our main advisor and is an expert in managing and treating patients with thyroid cancer. The lead of the Imperial Healthcare NHS Trust, he is the ideal person to have advising and working with us. My co-founders, Jan and Marius, study as PhD students in the Department of Aeronautics and have an interest in machine learning, so when I was discussing the idea they were both keen to get involved. I’m currently doing a PhD within the Department of Surgery and Cancer and the Department Aeronautics, looking at the effect of enlarged thyroid glands on the airway and using computational fluid dynamics to assess the airway. We’ve also recently connected with Mikhail, an MBA student, through the MBA Connect scheme. He’s a great addition to the team!
Enterprise Lab support
The Imperial Enterprise Lab has been fundamental to the development and progress of our idea. We took part in the WE Innovate competition 2017-18 and have gained so much from being part of the process. We had one-to-one business coaching with Janet Murray, who is an incredible business coach and has helped take our idea from a concept to the foundations of a business with a clear plan for future directions. We have had training on presenting and pitching from Dr Terry Clark, from the Royal College of Music, which has really transformed how we think about capturing audience attention. We have also attended countless inspiring lectures and talks in the Enterprise Lab from a number of very talented and successful individuals who have kindly given their time to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs. More than anything we have been driven by all the energy and support of the whole Enterprise Lab and we are so grateful!
Successes and setbacks
At the moment we are in the process of developing the software and training the software with data. This is where the hard work and graft comes in and all members of our team are working to ensure we produce something that will hopefully improve patient outcomes. Our first success was forming a team with the right expertise to drive forward the idea; we feel lucky to have the combination of both clinical and computing backgrounds in a team that communicates well and understands each other’s ideas. We came second in the WE Innovate competition and won £10,000 of funding to put towards our business. This funding will go towards certifying our software for use in healthcare systems in the UK and the EU. Another key step for us has been gaining approval to run the software alongside our human thyroid MDT, which will be part of training and validating the software.
Presently, time seems to be our biggest obstacle. The data collection and development phase is incredibly time consuming and we are juggling this alongside our other commitments. Fortunately, we meet at least a couple of times a week to touch base and keep up to speed with progress and targets. Another setback has been that we are unable to predict how much data the software will require to be trained to a high level. We have access to a large dataset, but until the training process begins we cannot know if that is sufficient. We have, however, developed contingency plans.
Advice to aspiring entrepreneurs
My advice to those starting out would be to work with people who drive each other and push each other in the right direction. Find a team that can work together towards the bigger goal and don’t get tied down in the minor details that could halt the momentum. Communication, understanding each other’s roles and respecting every individual’s input are the biggest factors in forming a successful team that can together grow something from a concept into a business. Currently, our running costs are minimal. We are using open source software and our team has the expertise to develop our product. Once developed and trained, we will be looking for an investment to take our product to market.