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.