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Problem-solving and progress-making are second nature to Mohamed Amersi. For many years, he worked as a lawyer for two of the world’s leading firms, focusing upon highly complex equity-related deals. He subsequently set up his own advisory and investment firm specializing in technology, media, and telecoms. In 2015, he and his family created the Amersi Foundation, which particularly supports causes relating to education, poverty, conflict, and social cohesion.
“The pandemic has definitely felt like a war at times. But it’s an unusual, asymmetric kind of war. The enemy we’re fighting is one that we can’t see or touch. It doesn’t deploy tanks, fire bullets or have a nuclear arsenal. But it does have hidden bases in pretty much every single part of the Earth. And our current weaponry is unable to defeat this enemy – an enemy that is only interested in killing us.
Like most people, I have had to learn a lot very quickly about COVID-19. I had no in-depth understanding of what ‘triaging,’ ‘social distancing,’ and ‘self-isolation’ were all about. We’ve all learned a completely new lexicon, a new way of living and have a new way of thinking about things. It’s a strange paradox, but we’ve had to stay apart in order to come together against this pandemic.
My Foundation has been tackling the pandemic head-on right from the start. We have been asked to and have agreed to provide advice and support ongoing research into repurposing an iminosugar drug at Oxford University that might assist in the fight against the disease. We have assisted and advised the OxVent ventilator program, addressing the UK public health system’s need for ventilators. It’s a joint venture between scientists, clinicians, and medical technology manufacturers.
The ventilator design passed all of the testing procedures, so it is now in discussion with the UK’s medicines and healthcare regulator and standards office about how its know-how can be exported on an absolutely non-profit, no-cost basis all over the world. The World Health Organization has also approached OxVent to tap into this know-how.
We’re all aware of the pressing need to improve the protection of healthcare workers while they’re treating patients. So, my Foundation has co-funded the development of an “aerosol box” screen. It’s basically a large transparent cube that covers a patient’s head. This allows a healthcare worker to come into very close proximity with the patient, but with an extra layer of protection between them.
In 2017, my Foundation decided to support the creation of the Oxford Foundry, Oxford University’s leading center for entrepreneurship and innovation. Among other things, the Foundry helps build and accelerate ventures.
Fourteen of the ventures in the Foundry’s portfolio are responding directly to the challenges that COVID-19 has created. These include solutions around telemedicine, diagnosis, remote symptoms monitoring, tracking and tracing as well as logistics and supply chain issues, crowd monitoring, and remote education.
In a competition - which comprised an august panel of healthcare judges which I had the privilege to chair - we unanimously awarded the winning prize to my110, an innovative initiative that focuses on the use of saliva for antigen testing. I have been asked to mentor the company through its research, clinical trials and regulatory process. If it works, it will be a game-changer in tackling COVID-19. Likewise, for the other prize winner, Oblivious AI, which has enabled rapid AI inference on encrypted data, addressing the core issue of contact tracing that is secure and respects the privacy of individuals.
One part of the Foundry’s plan right now is dramatically scaling up support to those fourteen ventures, as well facilitating access to grant-funding and networks. The other part is identifying and boosting innovative solutions to challenges that will arise from the pandemic in the foreseeable future.
I am currently providing advice to the UK government about their tracking-and-tracing app. This would allow much quicker identification of people who’ve been in contact with virus carriers and who need to quarantine themselves. That’s going to be really important in enabling us to ease social distancing measures. I’ve offered my Foundation's help in prototype development. But there are challenges over how to balance utility versus privacy.
Once the pandemic is beaten, we will need to think harder about many of the things we have taken for granted, particularly the purpose of business. If business is not able to responsibly take care of people, and the planet, then what's its purpose? I think there will be a lot of questions asked about how to rethink capitalism. It is important to note that there was once a man who was so poor that all he had was money. Likewise, he that has read only one book is dangerous. So, hopefully our pandemic experiences can become the catalyst for some extremely transformational reform.
The future of work is really interesting to me. Look at us now – I’m at home talking to you by video link to you in your home. Will we really need office buildings as much as we have in the past? Do we need to travel as much? I used to fly twenty days a month, but I haven’t travelled anywhere for the last two months. Am I less effective? We need to review all this and consider how we can improve our lives, become more efficient and sustainable.
As a society, we’ve got lessons to learn from the response to the pandemic. The best results have come when there’s been a recognition that we’re all in this together and need to work together. The universities have been a great example of this. China’s universities were very open about the genomics of the genetic code of this virus, sharing the data with everybody. A lot of the work that we are supporting at Oxford and elsewhere today has been undertaken in partnership with universities in China, Singapore, India, United States. There are no borders here, it’s about sharing freely.
"I was born in Kenya. My family’s roots are partly in Iran and partly India. We were in the commodities manufacturing and transportation business. A lot of our products were exported from Africa, so my great-grandfather decided to send his son to Kenya in the early 1900s. Being one of the earliest merchant families in Kenya, we were trailblazers, not only laying strong foundations for our family, but also for the wider community and the many people that came to East Africa.
I came to the UK to attend Merchant Taylor’s School in London. I originally thought I would read forensic medicine at university, which at that time was a program offered between Sheffield and Cambridge. Coming from a business family, my tutors thought I’d make a better lawyer than a forensic scientist. I then trained as a barrister for about eighteen months, but then decided to re-qualify as a solicitor and went on to join Clifford Chance.
As I started practicing law, I found that areas of corporate finance, deal making, mergers and acquisitions were the areas that I felt most at home with, given my family’s business background. It was important having clients do multi-billion dollar deals in a win-win format for everyone. This was a deal making methodology I’d learned from my family. So I eventually transitioned from law to business.
When making deals, you need to know the constituency that you are engaged with. That means that when you walk in to a room, you’ve literally got two or three minutes to size people up. You need to speak to them in a language they understand and make them feel that they have just met their very best friend for the first time. You need to put yourself in their shoes and anticipate what they are likely to want. All this is an art, which has fascinated me from the very first time I witnessed it being practiced. The best deals are 60/40; a 90/10 deal will usually end in litigation.
Increasingly, as I began to plan my transition from for-profit to not-for-profit, I began to focus on ideals ahead of deals. So my focus has become philanthropy in recent years. This was partly inspired by learning the value of sustainable business, which underpins philanthropy. If you want to plan for a year ahead, you end up planting a year ahead, you end up planting rice. But if you want to plan for ten years, you plant a tree.
My Foundation therefore decided to support the creation of the Oxford Foundry. The Foundry incubates the best business initiatives that will require support in many different ways. That includes the funding to roll out their plans, strategic support and mentoring from people who have done it before, advice from lawyers, marketing consultants, financial consultants and so on.
If I were a young entrepreneur or student starting out today, I’d be very optimistic. Because of COVID-19, I’d be saying to myself, ‘I’ve got a blank canvas, and I can do so much because the sky’s the limit and everything is right for disruption.’ But young entrepreneurs also need to realize they can’t do this all by themselves. To succeed, they need to collaborate. Early in my career, I learned that if you run alone you may be able to run faster, but if you run together, you will go further. I’m a great believer in long distance rather than sprints.
Once we emerge from the current crisis, I think global citizenship will become even more important. Our shared humanity transcends borders of nationality, color, faith, and whatever else divides us. Amid today’s crisis, we can see that it’s not about building walls. Doing so won’t keep the virus away. Instead, we’ve got to build bridges."
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