Politicians – be careful of unintended consequences

China wants to be a world leader in artificial intelligence by 2030.  Sinovation Ventures, one of China’s leading venture capital businesses with a focus on AI, says bringing Chinese talent home from US will be part of that effort and US Policy could well help that happen!

An interesting piece here from a Chinese investor, flagging the potential upside for China from stricter, in this case, US immigration policies. Though it may play to the masses, stopping talent working with you and, consequently, the cross-pollination of ideas isn’t a recipe for mutual benefit.  Something the politicians elsewhere would do well to note.

China’s technology race with the United States could frustrate its efforts to develop artificial intelligence (AI), while Washington’s anti-immigration policies would allow Beijing to catch up by building a strong talent pool, a top Chinese technology investor has said.

Ning Tao, president and partner of Sinovation Ventures, said that while US President Donald Trump’s administration may use the 16-month trade war to stall Chinese technology companies by limiting their access to US-made chips and other key components, it would not stop China from hiring the best talent in the field.

Here in the UK, we need to be careful not drive away talent with anti-immigration or attacks on other groups (private schools for instance) as we punch well above our weight in the global university and school rankings.

Artificial intelligence paving the way for faster disease screening

Although AI is often thought of as synonymous with robotic virtual assistants such as Siri or Alexa, or developing personalised suggestions for Google searches, adverts or programmes on platforms such as Netflix, and is often regarded in many cases with suspicion or even outright fear by the general public, there have been some developments in its application which should be warmly welcomed by the population at large: The use of AI in the diagnosis of medical conditions, especially the most serious ones such as cancer and degenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s.

At Polestar we have noted a number of developments suggesting greater alignment between the healthcare and technology industries, including the application of AI and big-data-focussed solutions. Generally, the healthcare’s data-heavy nature makes it an ideal candidate for the application of AI across a range of disciplines, from diagnosis and pathology to drug discovery and epidemiology.

Early detection is key in the fight against cancer and in too many cases individuals are put off going to see their doctor due to the inconvenience or the difficulty getting an appointment (and then not attending their follow-up appointments), or symptoms are incorrectly attributed to another condition. Early or ‘pre-cancer’ symptoms can be difficult to recognise and current methods rely on human analysis of scanned images, limited information from hereditary testing, or combining multiple diagnostic techniques which can be invasive and costly.

AI could drastically transform the assessment of cancer to a quick, simple, cheap and accessible option that could mean many more cancers are caught in their earliest stages and effective treatments started before there is any spread of the disease.  

In the past, AI solutions have struggled to penetrate the healthcare field as neural networks require large amounts of data in order to refines themselves and getting enough reliable data is major barrier; medical data is often heavily protected and is not always collected consistently enough. The general rule that a sample size needs to be 10x greater than the features searched for has meant that it application in medicine has been near impossible. Nonetheless, some companies are overcoming these challenges in unique ways, including training algorithms in reverse and using old-fashioned AI to explore completely new fields of medical diagnosis.

There have been several promising success stories so far:

Lunit – Image detection

Based in in South Korea, Lunit has trained their INSIGHT algorithm on chest x-rays and mammography images to detect lung and breast cancer. In 2016, they trumped Microsoft and IBM to win the Tumor Proliferation Assessment Challenge, boasting a 97% detection rate for lung and breast cancer. The CEO note that ‘it is difficult for doctors to find small nodules hidden behind ribs or organs in chest x-rays’, but their algorithm searches extensively for cancer patterns in order to drastically reduce the chance of a false negative or missed case of cancer. The team used CT scans that were biopsy-proven, therefore eliminating human bias.

Quantgene – Targeting cancer molecules

Quantgene is part of a new field of DNA-centric approaches to cancer detection, seeking to combine the two fields of cancer screening and genomics. Their algorithm analyses cell-free DNA to determine the genetic disposition to cancer, whether there is any cancer currently present and in what part of the body. Cell-free DNA (cfDNA) is expelled into the bloodstream from cells that have died or been killed, and they make up around 10,000 cells in a typical blood sample, which might contain ten million blood cells. Quantgene’s algorithm is designed to analyses every individual copy of cfDNA in a sample to determine if any single copy resulted from a tumour cell.

Lancor – Tumour Trace

London-based Lancor Scientific has designed a diagnostic device that combines AI with Opto-magnetic Imaging Spectroscopy (OMIS) technology, which is based on electromagnetism. When light is shone onto human tissue, the magnetic component of the reflected light can determine whether there is any malignancy. Current equipment required for this type of testing – magnetic and atomic force microscopes – are both huge and expensive, limiting their penetration. Lancor’s Tumour Trace uses the same principle as these large machines, but employs light rather than radiation, with the device weighing c.5kg and a single test costing around £10. During trials at Southend Hospital in 2018, Tumour Trace detected cervical cancer with more than 90 per cent accuracy. By using AI to remove biological noise from the signals, it is believed this can be improved to 97 per cent, and that the device could eventually be used to screen for all cancers.

The application of AI is not just limited to oncology, with DeepMind Health working with Moorfields Eye Hospital, training software to diagnose a range of ocular conditions from digitised retinal scans. That work resulted in an AI system able to recommend the correct referral decision for over 50 eye diseases with 94 per cent accuracy, matching the performance of top medical experts.

It has been stressed that AI technology won’t replace medical professionals, with computer algorithms designed to assist humans with more difficult diagnoses. In line with the UK government’s Industrial Strategy, five new AI research centres were announced in November last year, to be located in Leeds, Oxford, Coventry, Glasgow and London. Backed by a £50m investment and due to open in 2019, these centres will focus on the rapidly advancing area of image analysis.

At Polestar, we have experience in advising technology companies which are assisting the healthcare industry in both collecting and analysing the vast volumes of data it generates. The application of AI in healthcare is likely to be one of the most positive application of this technology channel.  Wide-scale implementation of AI could lead to a proactive healthcare system which responds to diseases preemptively rather than focusing on treating already ill people.

Thinking of bolt-on acquisitions? Read this.

The current environment may appear to throw up some apparent bargains and I am often asked by clients considering an acquisition what to look out for.  It is a good question as, whilst bolt-on acquisitions may be popular, statistically more than half will fail.

Acquisitions generally, and bolt-on acquisitions in particular, have proved an extremely popular means of achieving rapid growth.  In the main, a bolt-on allows for a larger firm to acquire a smaller specialist operating in an area in which it doesn’t currently excel, and with it gain access to new markets, sectors, or channels, whilst reaping improved economies of scale.

But over 50 per cent of bolt-ons fail. Why?

No clear plan

Before you do anything, make sure you have a clear idea as to why you are buying the business.  If the business case doesn’t add up, think long and hard about whether it is the right move.  Don’t forget – other opportunities will come along.  The most common pitfall is to buy something because the opportunity presents itself and seems a bargain.

It is not always a case of ‘who dares wins’!

Lack of due diligence

Make sure you do appropriate due diligence.  Post-deal, you do not want the distraction of resolving unforeseen issues.  This means proper DD, even for a small business.  For instance: does the target own its technology?  You will be surprised how often it does not.  Are there any tax or accounting landmines lurking beneath the surface?

Failure to integrate

Integrating a company can be far more demanding than buying it.  Ensure there is an integration plan in place to facilitate as smooth a process as possible.  IT systems in particular should be thoroughly considered so as to fully reap efficiency benefits.

Clash of cultures

One of the biggest issues with bolt-ons is culture shock.  Smaller acquired companies can struggle to adapt to the ways of their new parent.  Whilst natural, it poses a difficult question.  Do you force your culture on the business (and potentially lose what made it so attractive in the first place)?  Or, do you leave it to continue as before but with, perhaps, different reporting and financial structures in place?

With any bolt-on, the secret is creating the vision, getting everyone to buy-in to the plan, and taking good advice along the way.  Bolt-on opportunities arise on a regular basis, so make sure you do the groundwork first to ensure it is the right one for you. 

Oh, (and we would say this, wouldn’t we?) but please do get some proper advice.

Not another one! – let election fever commence!

What politically turbulent times we live in!

A “quick” recap.

May 2015 – David Cameron wins an overall majority.  The first Tory win since 1992.  Who can forget the trouble John Major had with the Eurosceptics.  Well, ‘call me Dave’ had a cunning rouse to avoid the same fate…

June 2016: you could knock me over with a feather duster, a majority of those who voted -17.4 million people – in the referendum said Leave.  That was 26% of the population, 1.3 million more than those who voted to Remain.  Although that is quite a lead,  12.9 million of those who could vote did not.  All this ignores the c.3 million Europeans who live in the UK and, of course, the young.

LSE reported that immediately after the referendum, there was a marked ‘shock’ reaction in the polls against the Leave vote.  Some Leave voters had voiced the opinion that they had only voted Leave to give the government a good kicking and they wished they had the opportunity to change their vote.  That was reflected in the early polls with the reversal of the Brexit referendum result into double percentage figures.  A higher percentage of Leave voters changed their mind to Remain, whilst the Remain voters generally stood firm.  IPSOS said those that did not vote were 2:1 in favour of remaining, as were 75% of 16-18 year olds and even more of the EU nationals (well, turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, often). 

We, as a country, immediately became polarised.  A polarisation that has tried to set the narrative of People vs Parliament,  Elites vs People or Business vs People. Both sides have played dirty and fast and loose with our constitution.  Business has suffered as has the UK’s international standing and this says nothing about the uneasy truce between me and some of my friends.

June 2017: Mrs May, who had decided she had too small a majority to deliver Brexit, put faith in the opinion polls and called an election.  The mission – secure a juicy majority and push Brexit through.  Even Tusk quietly egged her on – I mean look at Corbyn, pushing at an open door or what? Well, she failed to dazzle and wow.  Jezza Corbyn bribed the students and, hey presto, we had another minority government.

The main parties were divided, the population divided, families divided and Parliament could not agree on a single Brexit solution, even after Bercow had handed the order papers over to the members.

Summer 2019: Mrs May throws in the towel – and who could blame her. After a short skirmish, Alexander the Great, aka Boris, finally gets the position he has always sought.  He even promised to die in a ditch to secure it.

Again, a divided Parliament stymies the PM after he stymies Parliament.  He ends up firing more than 20 of his MPs, alienates his DUP support and breaks a promise not to agree to a sea border with Norther Ireland.  He gets a deal but there is no time to pass it.  So here we are – awaiting the first December election since 1923 (the second of three in two years at that time). 

For Boris, an election must be better than a ditch-bound death.  For the rest of us; here we go again.  Hopefully, this time we can have some clarity, BUT who knows how the next 44 days will go if recent history is anything to go by. It could be tumultuous.  South West Surrey to the Liberals?  In the meantime, lets try and crack on with business which, whilst frustrated, has carried on regardless.

Sorry Brenda from Bristol.  It’s another one.

Expect the unexpected

Owen Farrell and the rest of the England team received New Zealand’s haka by unexpectedly forming a V-shaped line-up, something that broke away from the usual shoulder-to-shoulder stance.  What a match it was that followed!

In the attached document, Owen has given some useful insights in his role as Investec’s Ambassador which are, of course,  as relevant to business as they are to rugby.  I thought they are really timely and, as sharing is caring, here they are.

His key points are:

I hope you enjoy the read as much as I did.  The world around us is fast paced and confused, so I find ideas crossing over from the world of sport helpful.

Enjoy Saturday morning whoever you may be supporting, or Sunday if you are a Kiwi or Welsh.

Weirdly sustainable fashion part 2: seaweed nappies

We’ve seen pineapple shoes. We’ve seen rugs made from rice. Today I bring you seaweed nappies.

Luisa Kahlfeldt – a graduate from ECAL, the Swiss Design Uiversity – has recently developed a nappy made entirely from seaweed and eucalyptus fibres.

The nappies are purportedly more sustainable than conventional reusable nappies due to the organic of the materials used to make them. Produced in partnership with Swiss textile company Schoeller, the fabric also has the added benefit of being antibacterial and rich in antioxidants; ideal for babies’ skin.

The design removes both the single-use nature of nappies and tilts the supply chain of raw materials in a more sustainable direction: a double win as far as the ecosystem is concerned.

Kahlfeldt points out that 17 million nappies are thrown away every day in the EU. Not only is this an incredibly wasteful practice from a materials perspective, but the waste itself is also highly damaging to whatever environment it ends up in. Kahlfeldt won the European Dyson prize for her innovation, once more reinforcing the zeal with which designers (and, by implication, manufactures) are pursuing eco-friendly alternatives to existing and well-established products.

Although this development may seem trivial, it represents a growing trend towards using organic and sustainable materials in the manufacturing process. Products like these are then marketed in a chic, fashionable manner that is likely to appeal the most to eco-savvy millennials and Gen Z customers.

Hopefully, by presenting innovations like these as both eco-aware and fashionable, this will continue the trend towards a sustainable future not through legislation and taxation, but rather through tickling the capitalistic tendencies of the public. Create a product that is both aesthetically and socially fashionable and people will buy into it.

Sumo seaweed nappies will hopefully be coming to a store near you in the not-so-distant future. Keep your eyes peeled for the next weirdly sustainable innovation which may well come from one of our clients, a leading suppler of disposable tableware.

Virtual reality – a promising future

Virtual reality (“VR”) is often associated with thoughts of avid gamers frantically screaming as they immerse themselves in an virtually generated world. It may be a surprise (as it was to me) to learn that the use of VR in the gaming only accounted for c.40% of the Global VR industry in 2018. Although VR has been used in various industries for a number of years, its use is limited by the infancy of the technology.

At present, the technology is available in a non-immersive or semi-immersive stage and, as VR gathers further investment and the technology improves, applications in other sectors where “real” situations can be modelled offer vast potential. Currently, the global virtual reality market is estimated to be worth c.$7.3 billion and is projected to reach c.$120.5 billion by 2026, a CAGR of c.42.2% over the period.

A key driver supporting this exponential growth is its application in training and staff development, especially for occupations which are more practical in nature such as Healthcare, Construction and Aerospace. In these industries there is often a lack of adequate opportunities to develop the necessary skills in advance or reinforce knowledge already gained; the thought of a surgeon performing an operation they have limited real-life experience of is quite frightening. According to the Harvard Business Review, 30% of surgeons couldn’t operate independently after residency. That, I dare say, is quite an alarming statistic.

VR offers an excellent solution to these challenges. Creating an environment where (in this case) surgeons can “operate” in a fabricated real-life situation can improve the quality of care across the board. According to the Harvard Business Review article, an experiment was conducted between two groups of surgeons, one traditionally trained while the other trained using VR. Overall, the VR-trained participants outperformed their counterparts by finishing the procedure on average 20% faster and completing 38% of the procedure steps more effectively. The significant merits of VR-based training are quite remarkable. Undoubtedly as the technology develops its use in skill development and training will evolve substantially. Personally, I find it extremely exciting to see technologies (such as VR) expand from its first intended use. It is innovation at its finest.

At Polestar, we work with a number of companies providing innovate solutions that often challenge traditional approaches. With technology improving at a substantial rate, the number of disruptive models is growing year on year. Businesses often require significant volumes of cash to develop their technology or grow their channels to market. External advice can be key to extracting the best value for shareholders while achieving the aims of the business.

For how long can we offshore CO2 emissions?

Extinction Rebellion has brought the climate urgency into sharp focus.  Even my partner and kids are talking about reducing waste by not buying in the first place, much better than recycling.

I am hopeful this will see an end to “not so nice” raspberries in our fridge in November.  What a waste of resources shipping them thousands of miles when we have a wonderful array of fruit weighing down the hedges in our garden; anyone want a sack full of apples?

This is also extending into the older kids’ shopping habits.  Less Primark, more second-hand shops.  It seems the habits of my parents’ generation (mend and reuse) are slowly being picked up by our children’s.

The UK aims to be carbon zero by 2050, but to be truly carbon neutral that has to include all the CO2 output in the production of everything we consume.  Maybe if we priced in the environmental cost of offshoring and transport, Primark would be more expensive and locally produced products more competitive?  For sure, this is idealistic, but see how quickly we are turning our backs on plastics!  There is hopefully a real opportunity for UK-based firms to produce quality products with an ever reducing carbon footprint, be that food, garments or vehicles.

One of our clients, who supplies Tesco, has recently been able to secure an additional 10% price increase on its products because they manufacture here in the UK; even the cut-throat world of supermarkets is recognising the fast-changing sea.

How ready are you to embrace this opportunity?

How photogrammetry highlights a new-wave development ethos

The topic of photogrammetry has come up frequently during research for a client recently and, given its interesting nature and relative obscurity, it seemed the ideal topic for a Polestar insight. 

Photogrammetry is a visual data analysis technique that composites a large quantity of 2D images into a single, highly detailed 3D virtual object. For example, land surveyors might repeatedly fly a drone over a piece of land – taking photos of it from all possible angles – in order to produce a navigable, photo-realistic rendition of the site. Used in this way, photogrammetry allows for incredibly accurate measurements and renders that are both more time and cost effective than most traditional methods such as helicopter surveying or laser measurements.

Although variations of the technology have been around since the 19th century, it is only really with the advent of advanced computing and microprocessors that we have been able to fully reap its benefits. The entertainment industry is a key investor, often deploying the tech to produce photo-realistic renderings of buildings and characters for use in CGI sequences in films and video games.

But photogrammetry’s use doesn’t stop there. Understandably, the technology has been widely adopted by the construction and engineering industries, largely due to its high accuracy, reliability, and speed. New building projects can simply be projected onto a photo-realistic rendering of the surrounding area that can then be explored in virtual reality, giving investors and buyers a never-before-seen level of engagement from the project’s get go.

Photogrammetry represents an interesting take on the development of new technology; producing new things isn’t always the most efficient route to solving a problem. While there have been huge leaps in laser-based measuring, computer-generated rendering and even radar scanning in the last few decades, it turns out that the humble camera is can be the most efficient way to generate a 3D rendering of an object.

It seems that smart progress isn’t always achieved by pouring resources into developing shiny new tech, but rather by looking at what is available and augmenting it to suit your needs.

Given the recent proliferation of ecological awareness in the media, this can also tie into the wider message of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ that has been around for many years now. We’re quite good at recycling; most people know what it is and practise some form of it. In this case, reduce/reuse could mean reduce the amount of unnecessary new technologies and reuse those already available in a new way.

How could a technology such as photogrammetry improve your business?

Why run 171k?

In August, I ran the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc (UTMB), a 171km foot race around Mont Blanc with over 10,000m of elevation, in aid of Robbie’s Rehab. Robbie’s Rehab is a rehabilitation service set up in memory of Robbie Keville, one of my youngest child’s friends, who passed away from a brain tumour aged 10. It provides vital help for kids and their families who are suffering in similar situations.

Whilst running, I got thinking that quite a few parallels that could be drawn between doing the UTMB and executing a deal. Here are my thoughts on the race itself and how that corresponds to a deal.