The reality of healthcare data is that it is messy, sparse and varies in structure enormously between different systems, countries and languages. Over the last ten years, the Volv team has developed original and innovative mathematics to allow the company to be able to derive value from this data unchanged. Volv Global provides applied data science solutions to some of the most challenging and pressing needs of its clients in healthcare and life-sciences.
With its inTrigue product, the company currently finds ways to diagnose patients at risk of diseases that doctors and carers find difficult to diagnose while subsequently helping reduce the time to diagnosis. The impact of this is very high: patients can be treated earlier for the right condition; the healthcare system is no longer burdened by patient misdiagnosis (and potentially injurious wrong treatments); and Volv Global’s pharmaceutical company customers are able to treat their patients sooner with their medications.
Before founding the company, CEO Christopher Rudolf has had over 30 years of experience, as a technology entrepreneur and business advisor, working with many blue-chip organisations solve their critical global scale data problems.
He was Head of Life Sciences for Europe for CSC, and in this role won the CSC Ingenious Mind award. In another role, he developed what became best-in-class global forecasting models for a large telecoms giant, quoted as being “second to none” according to the Financial Times Lex column at the time. In yet another role, he developed a new target operating model for a large UK pharmaceutical company helping to decrease overall inventory by US$ 750 million.
At Volv Global, Christopher is responsible for the strategic direction of the company, while working with some of the most talented individuals in the field.
The company has pushed the boundaries of the field of artificial intelligence by creating the ability to engineer robust models from sparse and gappy data, without needing any labels to learn from. In addition, Volv Global can use data that it knows is of unreliable quality in order to develop robust models that help detect people at risk of difficult to diagnose diseases earlier and more reliably.
The company builds specific approaches to solve data-centred problems that outperform the competition. The impact for its clients is that they can now find patients that have been ‘hidden’ within healthcare systems and to get them to treatment faster.
The most challenging aspect of Volv Global’s journey was to develop methodologies that could meet the challenges of the real world of medical and patient data, without the need to curate the data in any way. The company had to develop a rigorous methodology that would allow it to apply the same practice to different data sources and data types in any language, to accommodate the requirement to be able to re-learn its algorithms in each healthcare setting and to make the corresponding models applicable in many different environments.
Christopher has learnt that irrespective of the technology that people are working with, they need to understand the problem at the “coalface” in order to derive a true value proposition, be that on the production floor in a manufacturing facility, understanding how to sell a product in a complex set of markets, or understanding the conditions and symptoms that patients are suffering. All these things will inform them what they need to focus on. According to him, it is key to get under the skin of these problems as a leader, eschewing the ivory tower, in order to be able to help solve them and create solutions with their team.
However, the role of leadership is changing, as people are now working with what Christopher calls “leadership within”. This is where people must work to understand what it is that each individual can bring to a company and then how to develop that as a leadership skill, so that people can articulate their expertise and leadership when it is most needed.
Allowing leadership within is the key to helping the organisation to stay agile and to spot new potential opportunities.
Creating an Innovation Engine
Christopher thinks that every innovative leader should be informed by the experts he or she works with, together with needs of customers, whilst also optimizing one’s operational abilities and keeping an eye on the strategic vision of the organisation. All at the same time!
Innovation is not simple. In order to appeal not just to one customer but to many, Volv has a continuous innovation cycle, where it spends 10 percent of its time looking at the viability and scalability of new solutions that customers are asking about, 20 percent of its time working on selected new products through proof of concept projects that deliver immediate value, and then 70 percent of the time working on established product sales and delivery. The company has a “Seedbed, Pioneer and Beacon” model that allows it to pull through the most likely innovations that will have an application to multiple customers and that maps to these time and effort buckets.
Volv Global’s inTrigue product, which is a market leading product, came through this innovation cycle, where the company met the particularly challenging needs of a single client and then mapped out how this could also be a similar challenge for all companies with treatments for difficult to diagnose diseases. Volv first proved that it was possible to solve the problem, then worked with the customer on the actual challenges they faced, which meant that the company could then build out an end-to-end service offering. Important in this process was understanding the value points for three separate sets of stakeholders. Whilst only one pays for the service (the customer), there are two other important stakeholders for Volv, the patient and the healthcare system.
The Future of AI
People often ask how disruptive technologies like AI, machine learning and deep learning are impacting today’s innovation cycles. New solutions and services seem to be developed at an increasing pace, but many times they are not that revolutionary, but rather, more incremental. People need to keep their heads about themselves, avoid the hype, and focus on value. The impact may not be as large as people think, in Christopher’s view, as they seem to see a natural uptake of these new solutions and services.
Volv believes that application of technology has always had a massive impact through human history and has been disruptive many times over, and that it is in just another wave of technology roll-out. The real impact comes from the application of the imagination to realise the real opportunities to derive value; the scale at which that can happen now has grown, but it is still not democratized. The next step is about working out how to deliver these new products and value solutions to all of the company’s customers effectively.
In today’s environment, working in data science and AI means incredible amounts of collaboration are necessary with many partners, for shared assets like data, to have shared knowledge with the medical industry and experts, and to establish trust with patients. People need to be weighing up continuously between the inborn desire to help, along with the need to respect privacy, individual choices and ethics.
In the future, Volv will continue to push the boundaries of what is possible, continue to be a world-leader in the data science arena by bringing on new talent, and it wants to scale the business to deliver more products to wider audiences, while remaining the best in class in what it does.
Words of Advice
When Christopher is asked for advice for budding or emerging business leaders/executives, he would highlight the need to focus on delivering value and understanding what that value looks like to more than one set of customers. He further suggests, “do not be obsessed by your competition. Doing so will cause you to limit your solutions because of the way the competition works, which has a constraining effect. Remember to use your innovation to create real differentiation. Above all keep to your vision, and only let it be swayed by your customers.”