BMA Communities: Planning how to make Mars habitable

Published on 19th September in BMA Communities

I love medicine. I love the science, the satisfaction of a diagnosis, and the human stories. It can be horrible, hard and emotionally exhausting, but on a fundamental level it can be infinitely rewarding.

But I love creating things too. I enjoy building new projects and fleshing out new concepts. And I love the idea of creating organisations that have an impact on people’s health far beyond the one-to-one of the medical consultation.

So, halfway through medical school, I decided to branch out into something different. At the time I knew little of medical entrepreneurship. I followed a deep-rooted passion for neurology and psychiatry, and a frustration with the lack of awareness among the general public, to start a small non-profit organisation.

The goal was to raise awareness of neurological and psychiatric conditions, and educate the public about cutting-edge neuroscience. I decided to use art as a medium. I feel that the most exciting innovations and the best insights tend to come from the intersections of totally different fields.

The organisation, AXNS Collective, is now a team of five funded by King’s College London, the Wellcome Trust and the Arts Council. We have a new exhibition launching this September, a collaboration between an artist and a psychiatrist, exploring the experience of disordered visual perception.

I realised I loved this way of working. Building a small company and creating our own projects was fast, dynamic and exciting.

Faced with the prospect of having to give up my start-up to focus on my finals, I decided to take a year out and explore options as an entrepreneur outside medical school – and a friend suggested I apply for Singularity University.

Singularity University is based in Silicon Valley, tucked away on the NASA Research Centre in Mountain View – right next door to Google. It was founded in 2008 by Ray Kurzweil, artificial intelligence pioneer and Google’s director of engineering, and serial entrepreneur Peter Diamandis.

Over 10 weeks, 80 top global entrepreneurs, techies and scientists learn about the most advanced technology in Silicon Valley and consider how it can be used to tackle the greatest humanitarian challenges that face our world today. These include health, water, food, energy and environmental issues.

The aim is to positively impact the lives of one billion people in 10 years.

It sounded like the most ambitious, life-changing opportunity. But the fees were as large as its goals – more than £15,000.

With the help of Skin Analytics, where I had been working on their app to help monitor potentially cancerous changes to their moles, I won a Singularity University scholarship. I planned to apply the Skin Analytics technology to monitoring changes in chronic diabetic wounds. The app would help patients manage chronic wounds at home, without having to travel to a specialist clinic.

I was apprehensive about the course but, after just a few days, the Silicon Valley optimism was infectious. I was most surprised by the other students. I didn’t expect to find 80 people from across the world so similar to me. We all shared the same hunger for knowledge and desire to create.

We spent every day of the 10 weeks together, living in college-style rooms five metres from the main classroom. The students fondly name it ‘Sleepless University’. It is hard to go to bed when Brian, founder of a space start-up incubator in Australia is leading a discussion on his plans to make Mars habitable.

Silicon Valley is disrupting medicine. Hackers and start-up gurus across the world are creating new ways to tackle problems doctors have been struggling with for years. Tensions are inevitably created.

There is a certain confidence in the tech world that any industry can be disrupted, every problem can be solved. However, the human body cannot be defined by an algorithm. Health and disease, the psychology of medicine, hospital and national healthcare systems, all have the kind of complexity that many areas previously disrupted by the tech industry do not.

There is a huge opportunity for doctors to help tailor and mould the revolution. Healthcare will be radically different in 10 years’ time. I’m returning to medical school this year, and am excited as a doctor to be a part of the change.

In my next article, I’ll describe my team project, Mitera, a new form of personalised in-home healthcare, discuss previous Singularity University projects and the growing bias in the valley towards health and biotechnology.