Dr Marcus Ong’s business mantra is the same approach he learnt as a science student at university: “always question everything.” It was that instinct that drove him to transform a by-the-by consultancy firm into an innovative software company focussed on artificial intelligence solutions to the problems of Britain’s health service.
Back in 2014, Dr Ong and his business partner Dr Daniel Sprague founded Spectra Analytics with the central focus of providing advice and assistance to businesses looking to expand their use of artificial intelligence (AI). They were setting themselves up as a small, ambitious competitor to traditional consultancies with little digital expertise.
But it was a tough summit to climb, and Dr Ong soon realised that it would be immensely difficult to scale a digital consultancy with few resources from such a standing start. Instead, he and Dr Sprague decided to combine consultancy with a new focus on software development, transforming the company. “It came at the right time,” says Dr Ong. A burst of interest in artificial intelligence in the past decade made their “AI-as-a-service” model very attractive. Their focus was on healthcare and whether AI could assist in alleviating the bottlenecks which have made it harder for patients to access the services they need from their GPs.
Digitising healthcare has also been a central priority of the UK Government for several years now: Innovate UK’s Digital Health Technology Catalyst has been going since 2017, so when Spectra approached them in early 2018 for help funding a study into the feasibility of applying AI to triage in the primary care process, Innovate UK was convinced that Spectra Analytics was on to something. Innovate UK came forward with an initial £54,000 grant following a rigorous and highly competitive process. When the study confirmed the validity of Spectra’s approach, Dr Ong could apply successfully for further follow on funding.
Innovate UK not only got the project off the ground but has contributed some £1.15 million of funding over several years; it has seen Spectra through to the point of market entry. Its PATCHS system is now one of the fastest-growing online patient services in the UK, covering millions of patients nationwide. The support of Innovate UK also enabled Spectra to bring in academic and commercial partners, such as the University of Manchester and Advanced Health and Care. PATCHS stands for “Patient Automated Triage and Clinical Hub Scheduling”. Put simply, and it is an AI system that streamlines GP practice workflows and improves patient interactions in the health service. It is estimated that around a quarter of GP appointments are avoidable because they centre around administrative tasks like receiving test results or assessing ailments that don’t necessarily require examination. PATCHS, says Dr Ong, will “alleviate a lot of pressure on primary care services.”
The solution starts with first patient contact. While GP surgery receptions have “no real prioritisation based on clinical need”, the PATCHS system immediately assesses patients based on factors including symptoms, patient data and medical records and evaluates the urgency of their case accordingly.
This is not an uncompetitive field. There are a variety of digital patient triaging services, but PATCHS has an edge because it combines free text entry with AI. Patients are able to write what they like about their problems rather than being hemmed in by pre-made tick boxes. The AI is then advanced enough to assess the idiosyncrasies of each case and determine the urgency of the request and who is best to support the patient. The beauty of AI is that it learns from hundreds of GPs every day how to assess patients most appropriately.
As a public sector body, Innovate UK’s culture and approach were well attuned to the needs of working both in a university research environment and the National Health Service. Whereas commercial funders would have been primarily focused on whether Spectra would generate the financial turn they were looking for, Dr Ong felt that Innovate UK was more concerned with collating sufficient evidence that funding the project was “the right thing to be doing.”
As Dr Ong points out, such things are important. Healthcare is rarely comfortable for experimentation and innovation, with its unique concerns and sensitivities about patient outcomes and welfare.
“With healthcare, you don’t want to go down the traditional Silicon Valley route of move fast and break things,” says Dr Ong.
He emphasises that “if you do it badly patients can be harmed.” For that reason, recruitment of top data scientists is paramount, and Dr Ong looks to hire the brightest mathematicians and scientists from top universities. He thinks he has a growing pool to pick from because “a lot of talented people doing PhDs don’t necessarily want to be in academia, but not necessarily completely in industry either.” Spectra Analytics is, he hopes, a bridge between the two fields.
To attract the brightest and best, Spectra runs a data science internship for those studying for PhDs in adjacent fields like statistics. “We train them in the full data science lifecycle,” he says. And in order to keep the ideas flowing among the small team, Dr Ong tries to foster a close, family-like atmosphere. Throughout the pandemic, he and Dr Sprague gathered the team for weekly online board games and mental wellbeing workshops. There was also a mentoring programme for new staff so that they were fully integrated, despite Covid-induced isolation. And his mission to make Spectra a cosy workplace continues – during our conversation, he is momentarily distracted taking delivery of furniture for the company’s trendy new office space in Southwark.
Dr Ong was also highly impressed by the way Innovate UK reacted to COVID, streamlining its approval processes to get funds out quicker to projects, but also in bringing together multiple organisations to find synergies between grant holders and help improve collaboration., .
The team’s unity of purpose is what drives Spectra’s innovation. Before he founded the company, Dr Ong worked as a derivatives trader. But while he is glad of the experience, Dr Ong likens trading to “a game” without a clear mission. What drives him now is a desire “to look back and say I’ve done something worthwhile”. Healthcare was a somewhat obvious choice: his mother and father both worked as nurses and originally met on a ward.
Much like his parents, he says he is driven by a desire “to give people the healthcare they need when they need it”. While the business has worked in sectors as varied as hospitality and finance, Dr Ong maintains that healthcare is now the focus. After the heavy delays in procurement throughout the pandemic, he is optimistic about achieving his goal of rolling out PATCHS through the health service. In the last few months, Spectra Analytics has won multiple NHS tenders and is growing rapidly.
In the meantime, he continues to advocate for digital transformation across sectors, arguing that it is one of the most effective ways to increase productivity and improve services.