Ian Halstead catches up with the founders of two innovative healthcare start-ups, Kaido Group and Give Vision, based in the heart of Birmingham.
Creating the next generation of tech-savvy companies, in tune with the digital era and capable of providing genuinely radical products and services, is a global challenge, but it’s being tackled with impressive success on the Innovation Birmingham Campus.
It’s an ambitious initiative to bring together the public and private sector; creating connections between people with ideas, technologies, expertise, experience… and money, to stimulate collaboration and promote innovation.
Some 150 technology businesses are already based on the 104,000 sq ft campus, and in February 2017, the CEO of Innovation Birmingham, Dr David Hardman, unveiled plans to deliver another 90,000 sq ft of new space by Q1 2020, which would make it the UK’s largest dedicated technology location.
“We know the demand is there, because the two state-of-the-art buildings we have opened in the last year (iCentrum and the Universities Centre) are already almost fully occupied,” he says. “Our ambition and vision for Innovation Birmingham reflects the scale of opportunity this city presents. We have already become a hub for innovative digital businesses, from start-ups to scale-ups and beyond.
“Now we are continuing to develop out our masterplan; to satisfy the demand from existing tenants, to provide space for those who wish to relocate here, and to be able to accommodate the new digital businesses of the future.”
To fund the new space, Innovation Birmingham has appointed a team from KPMG’s Corporate Finance practice in the Midlands to seek investment, in exchange for equity stakes in the campus.
That’s for the future, of course, but for now, the flagship scheme on the site is very much iCentrum; an imposing 42,000 sq ft structure which catches the eye from the outside, but whose internal design cleverly creates the sense of being inside a towering skyscraper.
Walking inside is like entering a new digital universe and the sense of energy is tangible. The open-plan design, break-out space and large restaurant area have been designed to encourage connectivity between tenants, and it clearly works.
Hardman’s research suggests that growth rates on the Innovation Campus consistently run ahead of those achieved at similar tech-based schemes elsewhere in the country.
One of the many pioneering digital start-ups at iCentrum is Kaido Group, whose Insights platform, created with its partners at Microsoft, aims to take advantage of the huge opportunities provided by Big Data and technology to revolutionise healthcare.
Put simply, it aims to combine the use of ‘actual’ intelligence, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and data to deliver healthcare models which will have a profound impact on how services are delivered, across healthcare systems and the life sciences sector.
Especially appealing of course to a health service desperate to cut costs, improve patient care and also eager to empower patients to better manage their health, away from under-pressure hospitals and GP surgeries.
March 2017 saw the launch of Kaido Wellbeing, targeted at the corporate healthcare sector, which it believes is the only health platform combining professional health expertise with AI to deliver personalised well-being guidance to employees.
The venture was only established in November 2015, but has already attracted significant investment from the business community, and equal amount of positive attention from the region’s healthcare sector, as founder and CEO Rich Westman explains. “I was the academy strength and conditioning coach at Worcester Warriors, and before that had been at Leicester Tigers. Several of us from the Warriors had different skills, sports psychology, nutrition, fitness, and so on, but we all had a vision about sharing our combined knowledge to benefit others.
“To be honest, I was also fed up with the day-to-day activity. It may have been at elite sport level, but it was very repetitive and often mundane. I’d done business studies and sports science at Loughborough, but I wasn’t really using the business side.
“Our initial plan was to create an app so people could access high-quality information and guidance to give them insights about their healthcare decisions. As it happens, because digital technology evolves so swiftly, we now use a cloud-based AI platform, Insights, which can be integrated into any other platform.
“The concept of Kaido was well received, we had a break or two along the way, in terms of investment and personnel, and then looked for somewhere to be based. None of us fancied London, but we had no strong preferences about location, until we met David Hardman.
“He ‘sold’ us his vision for Innovation Birmingham, and the iCentrum as a place to be at our very first meeting, and we came here in April 2016. The West Midlands Academic Health Science Network backed us, and we were impressed by its commercial director, Tony Davis.
“From that point, we really started to understand the opportunities offered by Big Data. We realised we could take data from anywhere, combine it with ‘real’ intelligence, and then use AI to create what we call ‘actionable insights’ so individuals could take charge of their own healthcare decisions.”
An intriguing idea, of course - not least for the NHS, employers and individuals keen to make changes to their lifestyle and behaviour - but one which needed to be thoroughly evaluated and validated.
Westman and his colleagues then won a place on an intensive 12-week incubator programme, at Microsoft’s UK headquarters on the Thames Valley Campus, near, Reading. “They analysed absolutely everything, loved our concept… but hated the idea of an app, so that’s when we decided to migrate to a cloud-based platform. Everyone we then met in the healthcare community also embraced our vision of delivering preventative and predictive models of healthcare.
”Now, our ambition is to use digital technology to transform how healthcare is delivered. We want to prove how sharing data and knowledge creates huge benefits.”
It’s a mindset which dovetails perfectly with the innovative Trials Acceleration Programme conceived in Birmingham by Charlie Craddock, as Westman accepts. “Absolutely. He had the original idea of using real-world evidence and data to deliver personalised healthcare, which could slash the cost and time of clinical trials, and it’s a model which we fully embrace.”
Just yards away from Kaido’s open-plan office is Give Vision. The former’s use of digital technology is intriguing and innovative, but the latter’s is revolutionary. Founder Stan Karpenko and his talented team have created an electronic headset, SightPlus, which gives people with visual impairments the gift of sight.
It’s a light, hands-free and portable device, allowing people to read, watch TV, see people around them, and to conduct a life which would previously have been impossible. It may sound like something from the future digital universe of Westworld, and you’d likely need multiple PhDs to understand how it works, but it does.
Karpenko offers glasses to recreate the sense of minimal vision, then places his headset atop them. A whirling environment of blue appears, but as the controlling joystick is manipulated, blurred images appear, and then it’s possible to read headlines and see pictures.
Awesome is one of the contemporary world’s most over-used words, but it’s difficult to find another. Intriguingly, the catalyst for the SightPlus concept - now at its third prototype stage, and already in use in the West Midlands - was the experiences of blind code programmers, who contacted Stan whilst working on another project.
“In 2014, I was working on a hobby project with Peter, who then worked for Google Glass, but is now with us at Give Vision,” recalls Karpenko. “We did the work on Open Source, and a number of blind code programmers contacted us. People are surprised that programmers can be blind, but code needs to be short and elegant, and the very best programmers can create solutions in their head.
“Their comments inspired us, they were like super-heroes to achieve what they did without sight, and we started thinking how we could do something for them, and for anyone who suffers from impaired vision.
“For example, we looked at how Birmingham City Council communicated with blind people, and those living with sight loss. Essentially, they were offered a plastic magnifying glass, and when we met the council leader, John Clancy, last year, we discussed what more could be done.
“It was pretty much the same at the Royal National Institute of Blind People, they were supplying reading aids, not addressing the issues faced by blind people. We looked at wearable technologies, the use of virtual reality, and computer ‘vision’ and gradually had an evolution of ideas.
“We realised this was a good problem to solve, for millions of people, and finally we created software which worked with a standard smart-phone and goggles. Even four or five years ago, it wasn’t possible, because the technology wasn’t there, or was too large or too heavy, but now it is.
“The first prototype worked, but was too heavy, the second was better, and the third is very light and easy to use. At this moment, we can restore sight for two in three people, but by 2025, I believe anyone who is considered blind will be able to see, read, go shopping, and lead an independent and fulfilling life.”
It’s a remarkable statement, made more so by the matter-of-fact way in which Karpenko speaks, and he clearly thinks it’s an achievable ambition.
”The quest for our team is to solve sight loss for people who cannot be cured, and our strategic view is shared by our partners, our investors, and everyone here,” he says. “We have an amazing team, some come from Poland, Germany and French-Polynesia, and I grew up in a Russian city inside Lithuania, but we’re all extremely happy to be based in the UK, and to be living and working in Birmingham.”