Dr Maria Chatzou Dunford is Co-founder and CEO at Lifebit, a leading innovator in bioinformatics and cognitive software solutions. Headquartered in London, they have recently closed their Series A funding round led by Idinvest Partners along with previous investors Pentech Ventures, Beacon Capital and Connect Ventures. The company was recently named as one of Forbes’ Top 15 Machine Learning Companies to watch in Europe and have high ambitions to change the future of health for everyone.
Dr Dunford talks to Maria Josife, Senior Partner at Erevena about how Lifebit is using AI and machine learning to democratize the analysis and understanding of genetic data to fast-forward cures; enable disease prevention; and dramatically improve our quality and understanding of life.
What problem is Lifebit solving?
The biggest problems that our clients face is that the vast majority of data is not usable as it’s in silos and not easily accessible, plus it’s complex and non-standardized. The Digital Universe Study estimates that just 3% of all data is currently tagged and ready for manipulation, and only one sixth of this – 0.5% – is currently used for analysis. By 2025, more than 500 million human genomes will be sequenced, creating more data than YouTube and Twitter combined. These mountains of precious genomic data hold the answers to some of the biggest challenges faced by medicine.
Existing approaches are piecemeal, addressing only parts of the problem and ignoring fundamental issues such as data privacy and security. Furthermore, these approaches tend to be prohibitively expensive, requiring very specialised expertise and technologies.
Our technology creates new collective understandings from this complex distributed data, on an operating system underpinned by AI and machine learning. We believe organisations and researchers should never be forced to move sensitive data from one place to another which is why we created the first fully federated genomics platform that integrates and accommodates all best practices and full compliance models. Data privacy and security are always assured and collaboration across teams is seamless.
“People talk about insights, but it’s about intelligent discovery that comes about when you can mine this data to extract knowledge that will give meaningful insights which will change how medicine is done, how people live and how we thrive.”
Where did your inspiration for Lifebit come from?
My co-founder, Dr Pablo Prieto Barja and I have been in this field for over a decade and are passionate about it. We both have a computer science background, having met as PhD students and fell in love with the bioinformatics side. What excited us is how you can use computers in a more sophisticated way to impact health. The big incentive for the company came from our passion for how we can uncover the mysteries of life and apply bioinformatics at scale.
What are the opportunities and impact that you see in the product that you’ve created?
Fundamentally we have 3 aims: to help our clients with faster drug discovery; to accelerate clinical diagnosis and improve the process of research discoveries. We work with the big pharma companies to enable them to do that, and we’re also working with a large genomics project, like Genomics England (GeL). The Lifebit platform was chosen by GeL to provide access and analysis to the data from over 35,000 patients suffering with Covid-19 in intensive care units across the country, and the findings from the data will help drive the UK’s response to the global pandemic. Instead of having siloed data we will be able to put the data in the hands of the scientists working on Covid-19 across the world and enable global collaboration.
“This data can help save lives and the UK is pioneering that. We feel humbled by the trust placed in us and the opportunity to be involved in this project at the global level.”
The Lifebit platform will eventually also be used by GeL to provide access to the data from over 100,000 individuals suffering from cancer and rare diseases and allow analysis to drive better understanding of the disease as a whole. Analysing data can allow the diagnosing of people to be sped up to 75% faster and the improvement in accuracy levels are incredible too, which can mean the difference between life and death, particularly for those with chronic, rare and complex diseases.
Previously people would get the wrong treatment because of a lack of understanding of what the data was showing. All of our medicine to date has been symptom based, where a doctor makes a diagnosis based on the symptoms of previous patients. However, when you have a chronic, rare or complex disease the doctor won’t necessarily have previously seen your exact symptoms, but access to data analysis can help with an accurate diagnosis and treatment.
“We’re on a mission to help people take preventative actions; it’s not just about curing diseases.”
Access to data means that clinical trials can be over 50% more successful and 50% faster which results in billions of pounds worth in savings, and also in a massive improvement in the quality of life for both the person with the disease and their family and loved ones. The majority of trials fail because of the side effects of the drugs undergoing trial; a quicker more successful trial means fewer side-effects and a better quality of life.
We’re at the beginning of personalized medicine, where we can use data to determine the right drugs for people. Currently so many drugs are not tested on a broad cross section of the population, for example heart disease drugs are designed for and tested on men and can have horrible side effects on women.
“We are pushing forward the frontiers of health and creating a more integrated, accessible landscape of knowledge that enriches life and enables meaningful breakthroughs.”
Has it been difficult to find the right talent in the UK to allow you to scale the business?
We take an international approach to sourcing talent, but in my view, we have access to outstanding engineering and research talent in the UK particularly in London, Oxford and Cambridge. Our biggest challenge isn’t finding talent it’s retaining it in such a dynamic market.
We’re very fortunate that Lifebit is a very popular place to work and we attract great talent. We’ve had lots of applicants which makes me feel very happy and humble that there is so much interest in working for our company. However, we want to make sure that we don’t miss out on global talent, particularly as we’ve all realised since the restrictions in place with Covid-19 that it is possible to work effectively remotely.
What are the other crucial challenges that you face as you scale?
The two things that are vital to us as a company are our team and exceptional client delivery. Our team is our powerhouse – at the end of the day companies are a collection of people and it’s people that make the difference. People need to feel happy and inspired, with a shared vision and mission.
“The collective mind is far superior to the singular.”
For us as a company the real measure of success is if our clients are happy and can’t imagine a world without us. I truly believe that Lifebit has the potential to change the world forever just as the big tech companies have done. The next wave is the genomics revolution and if we do our job well, we have the potential to be the next Google or Apple. However, day to day it’s all about helping our clients access and analyse the data that they need to solve their problems and be successful.