The AI skills barrier
Getting enough people who can write those intelligent algorithms and test those machine learning models, however, is proving one of the barriers to precision medicine taking off, says Dr Dominiczak.
"We need lots of very clever computer scientists to get interested in biomedicine. That's been the most difficult thing for us. Because if you're a computer scientist, if you're an AI expert, it's much easier for you to go into fintech and deal with numbers in financial services, or in other parts of the economy.”
Dr Kuku says that another barrier is that healthtech innovators have to build systems with clinicians, nurses, workflow and contextual challenges in mind. But such constraints could lead to big opportunities for smart precision medicine start-ups – and those who invest in them.
The reason? It’s still a very young industry, and companies that are willing to take the time to get it right, and invest in expertise and technology, can prosper in this space. After all, hospitals want to offer better value by avoiding ineffective and/or painful treatments, and optimising patient outcomes is key to any sustainable healthcare system.
And opportunities abound: "Research both in the academic sphere, from spin-outs and within start-ups is vast – and ranges from rare diseases, to cancer, anti-ageing and diagnostics," says Dr Kuku.
That's why Barclays, University College London's Medical Genetics unit, and Capital Enterprise have launched the UK's first precision medicine incubator and accelerator. Called the P4 Precision Medicine Accelerator Programme, the venture allows start-ups to partner with Barclays and UCL to road test their ideas, and means the efficacy of their healthcare technologies and services can be objectively assessed.
However, identifying the winners in this space will be challenging and will depend on a proper evaluation of the underlying technology, says Michael Topley, Head of Sustainable Portfolio Management at Barclays Private Bank. “While precision medicine is an incredibly attractive area to invest in, bringing together a range of exciting technologies to help address global challenges, it is uncertain who the winners will be,” Topley suggests.
“Therefore, rather than focusing on the area from a top-down thematic perspective, we look at it from the bottom-up, trying to identify which specific companies in the supply chain have the best prospects for maximising risk-adjusted return.”
Mr Topley’s sustainable strategy therefore holds several names at different points in the supply chain, from the tools used to sequence a person’s DNA, to the artificial intelligence systems that help to determine how a particular protein could be made.
That notion of bottom-up fundamental, rather than top-down thematic, precision medicine investment is echoed by Dr Kuku. "Healthcare is now seen as an opportunity area for investors post-pandemic. However, we must still be cautious about hype," she warns.
"As long as healthcare remains under-funded, we must ensure only technology that proves it can do what it claims to do is implemented. Technology is the tool, not the goal, and it must help healthcare teams provide significant clinical and public health impact."