Meri Williams is the CTO of Healx, a startup using artificial intelligence (AI) to discover new treatments for rare diseases.
The Cambridge, UK, based company has built an AI platform that trawls structured, unstructured and proprietary data to look for new drug insights. It aims to progress 100 rare disease treatments towards the clinic by 2025. In October 2019 Healx raised $56m in a Series B funding round, bringing its total funding to more than $70m.
Prior to joining Healx in June, Williams was the CTO of challenger bank Monzo. She is now focused on developing Healx’s investment in AI and data, as well as expanding the use of modern product engineering approaches to build innovative drug discovery tools.
In this Q&A, the 32nd in our weekly series, Williams explains why blockchain doesn’t live up to the hype, how Covid demonstrates the complexity in discovering new treatments, and why we can’t rely on “crushed dinosaurs” forever.
Rob Scammell: Tell us a bit about yourself – how did you end up in your current role?
Meri Williams: I actually first joined Healx as a “fractional” interim CTO, intending to help them find the right person for the permanent role. Then I really fell in love with the mission and the team, and Tim (CEO) convinced me to join permanently.
It’s a very different role for me: I’m in a much smaller team and am closer to the actual tech, but I’m loving that aspect. My academic background is in AI (I studied under Dr Joanna Bryson who is a leading voice in AI ethics) and I’m delighted to get back to the bleeding edge whilst hopefully also bringing useful scaling experience from my time at Monzo, MOO, the Government Digital Service, and so on.
What’s the most important thing happening in your field at the moment?
In medtech, I think Covid-19 has really focused people’s attention on how long it typically takes to get viable treatments to patients, and so we’re seeing more and more people looking at how to speed things up whilst remaining safe.
In AI, the focus on explainability, the need to guard against bias (I heard someone once say that machine learning can accidentally act as “money laundering for decision bias” if you don’t pay close attention to your training data sets) and the importance of expert human involvement are all important themes.
In general, I hope tech is getting better as an industry at figuring out what we *should* do, not just what we *can* do. We’re maturing and taking more accountability for our choices, having seen some more extreme consequences of decisions in recent years in particular.
Which emerging technology do you think holds the most promise once it matures?
I’m very excited about the continuing innovation in power — better batteries, better solar power, better hydropower, etc. With technology being increasingly demanding of power and essential to both work and play, we can’t keep relying on buried crushed dinosaurs & trees indefinitely. I also think it’s going to be a global equaliser in some ways — can you imagine if Africa as a whole could rely on sunshine more than imported oil? The leapfrogging potential is immense, especially if we can pair better power with improved connectivity. That will open up educational and employment opportunities to this immense pool of talent that is just wildly under-utilised at the moment.
How do you separate hype from disruptor?
Mostly by looking at practical application and how useful something really can be. Also frankly by just listening to whether people really understand what they’re talking about. I’m an advisor for a great early-stage VC fund (Kindred, who practice what we call equitable venture, by investing back in founders too) and you wouldn’t believe the number of “solutions searching for a problem” that I evaluated, especially when blockchain was the hype word du jour.
Of course, there will be *some* problems that blockchain genuinely can solve in a completely new way, but most folks who tell me they’re investing in it can’t articulate why they need it rather than just a database – and that makes me think they’re riding the hype train rather than genuinely understanding either the customer need or the technology.
What’s the best bit of advice you’ve been given?
“Figure out what you can’t stop yourself doing”. I never found career advice that was focused on happiness very pertinent — I’m the kind of person who is happy being effective and can learn to do most things well enough to be effective. So focusing instead on what I couldn’t stop myself doing (even if it wasn’t my job … or worse sometimes, even if it was someone else’s job!), accepting that and then framing roles and moves around that has helped me much more.
Where did your interest in tech come from?
I’m generally fascinated by how things work. Even as a little kid I was always disassembling things to figure them out (and usually, but not always, putting them back together again). I can remember fixing an overhead projector for a teacher when I was 7 years old. I built my first computer from abandoned broken parts fished out of a skip when I was 9 or 10.
My mum is a bookkeeper with an English degree and my dad is a mechanical engineer, and my favourite grandfather was a coal miner from the age of 13, so I think it helped that I wasn’t ever scared of numbers or languages or machines too. I always assumed I could fix anything I broke, or talk my way out of trouble, and that let me experiment a lot. I’m from a working class / “light blue-collar” South African background, and so it was also important and useful to be able to repair things and keep them running for as long as possible.
What does a typical day look like for you?
My days vary quite a lot, but my weeks are probably a bit more consistent. Usually, at least 30% of my time is spent working with my exec peers on strategic and operational company-level topics — whether it’s agreeing our focus for the next quarter or planning our next board meeting or investment pitch.
30% is spent working with my direct reports through a mix of 1:1s focused on mentoring and leadership team sessions focused on architectural decisions, planning, and staying abreast of progress.
Another 30% is focused on the rest of my technology, design, data and product organisation. I like to spend time with engineers, designers and product managers in my teams to understand what their key challenges are and spot themes that might need working on across the board. I love seeing a plan come together, and especially enjoying observing user research sessions to see if we’re managing to delight our users. Nothing is more motivating (or humbling!) than seeing your products actually being used.
And then the remaining 10% tends to be individually or externally focused. I put those together because I enjoy speaking at conferences (and I adore chairing The Lead Dev, the conference series for technical leaders), but I also love to learn by hearing others speak. It helps me keep current and stay abreast of what’s changing, and also informs my in-depth reading list. I’m a voracious reader, easily getting through 2-4 books per week (though a lot of that is fiction, for relaxation).
What do you do to relax?
I read a lot, play video games (mostly things like The Last of Us, Uncharted, the newest Tomb Raider reboots, Horizon Zero Dawn — anything with a mix of fighting/stealth and story), and build complex Lego.
When I can get away, I adore the sea and snorkelling and am getting better at underwater photography with a lightweight GoPro rig. My wife & I generally really enjoy travel, both for the experience and the food — and she’s an architect, so always enjoys seeing different building styles and technologies too.
I don’t drink, so hanging out with friends usually focuses around watching movies together (sync-watching from our own homes during Covid of course) and braaing (barbecuing) or cooking for each other.
Who is your tech hero?
Katherine Johnson. She’s sadly recently passed at the grand age of 101, but her work on the early NASA space programmes is just brilliant. Like many, I hadn’t heard of her until [the film] Hidden Figures came out, but having read up on her and her work since, I find her immensely inspiring. And a useful reminder that we always see history through the lens of whoever gets to dominate the story — so many contributions are erased or overlooked if it doesn’t fit with a comfortable narrative. But women and people of colour have always been at the core of technological innovation, and we’d better stop pushing them away if we want the best products and results.
What’s the biggest technological challenge facing humanity?
Continuing to make technological progress and improve more people’s lives without destroying our planet and fellow humans. Too many of our systems are optimised for short-sightedness — how do you make a quick buck, or win power for the next year or four — when many of the most meaningful things we need to do take sustained long term action and the dismantling and remaking of systems to produce better outcomes for all. Figuring out how to spend high-quality time on what is genuinely important, as well as increasingly urgent, is a dilemma many of us are facing.
Read more: CTO Talk: Q&A with Aryaka’s Ashwath Nagaraj