Leaders Changing the World no 3: Tim Thorne
Tim Thorne and I worked together at RBS to create the Group
Innovation function. He was Innovation Director and I was the
part-time Chairman of the Innovation Board to which Tim reported.
It wasn't the most promising environment for new ideas to flourish
but Tim was a leader with an unstoppable sense of mission and
accomplished a lot - nothing capable of changing the world
But now he is changing the world. He is up to a lot of stuff ,
but it's a project he is leading at Cancer Research UK which I want
to write about. The project is finding a way to speed the
development of new cures for cancers - this is real ground-breaking
innovation which is capable of changing the world for a lot of
Tim had a look at the end to end research process to see how it
could be speeded-up - it takes years to get a new treatment or
diagnostic from the lab through trials and into widespread use. One
of the things holding it up is data analysis. Do you know that it
can sometimes take 3-4 years to complete the analysis of the
results of a drug trial or that it involves analysing petabytes of
DNA data to develop new diagnostic tests yet the average human
genome is the data equivalent of a 20,000 page phonebook! Much of
this analysis is boring and repetitive, yet around the world it is
undertaken in labs by highly qualified and well-paid PhDs.
There has to better, faster and cheaper way of doing this
analysis! So here was one of Tim's ideas. NASA is already using the
internet to crowdsource the analysis of images from the Hubble
telescope - could we use the same platform to crowdsource the
analysis of microscopic rather than telescopic images? So Tim's
team got the astronomers together with a bunch of young developers
and some of the leading cancer scientists in the UK. They locked
them in a room at the Science Museum for a long weekend.
In short they quickly developed a prototype and within 3 months
they launched "cellslider" on the internet
The results have been amazing. In under 6 months they have had
an astounding 1,000,000+ images classified - the same data would
take a team of 10 pathologists, giving a few hours a week above
their day-to-day NHS work, 3.5 years to process! They spent only a
few thousand pounds on marketing it - so costs were next to
nothing! What's more they will shortly publish findings that prove
it is just as accurate. So it's proved the concept that
crowdsourcing can take years off the time to analyse data and speed
new cancer treatments and diagnostics to market. By giving a few
minutes of your time you can really help save thousands more lives
Well things have now gone really crazy from there!
- they are recruiting users from all over the world - from a
small class in an Alaskan High School to thousands of Chinese after
a post on Reddit.
- They took it Parliament and 72 MPs have become users.
- Amazon love it and have given free use of Amazon Web Services
- Google love it, are regularly asking Tim's team to present at
- Facebook love it - posts on it achieve record click-through
rates, they have given free developers and appeared with Amy Carton
from Tim's team on Radio 4′s Today programme
- They are being pro-actively contacted by potential corporate
sponsors, business figures, foundations and philanthropists who
want to help.
- Even MIT loves it and has a group of students helping out
They have now moved on to look at a different type of data - the
DNA microarrays which can indicate where the mutations occur that
are responsible for cancers. This data is really boring to look at
- endless streams of dots on a graph. Too boring to engage users.
So instead they are going down the route of creating smartphone
games that are powered by these data streams. For example the data
becomes asteroids for your spaceship to avoid or drops of rain to
collect in a bucket - your movements in reaction to the game then
do the analysis for them. Last month they got together developers
from Facebook, Amazon, Google and leading games companies for
another weekend. Together they created 12 working prototypes of
games which we can now launch later in the year. This was the first
time these companies had ever put their developers together in a
collaboration and as a result there was huge media interest in the
So where now?
They are looking at numerous different ways to bring big bucks
into this field - from conventional grants to creating a business
model which would allow VCs to invest.
They will build a new platform .The platform would bring in
various data-sets, do all the back end stuff and then throw out
APIs into applications and games. Some of these might be more
Cancer Research micro-sites but they would also have open APis and
allow others to develop games and apps using their data. They could
also take in data sets from outside Cancer Research UK - there are
many other medical research and genome projects collapsing under
the weight of the data they need to analyse.
This could really change the world!
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