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Oliver Harrison

Dr Oliver Harrison, Founder-CEO of Koa Health, joined Medical Sciences in January as the 2024 Royal Society Entrepreneur in Residence. Oliver works closely with key stakeholders across our translation and innovation community to build and strengthen Oxford’s huge potential in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and digital healthcare.

In this Sixty Seconds interview, we hear from Oliver about his career to date, his vision of Oxford shaping the future of healthcare AI, and why he believes that courage is the key to unlocking innovative solutions.

First, tell us a little bit about your career to date and why you wanted to be involved in the Entrepreneur in Residence scheme?

I started out with a degree in Medicine and Neuroscience at Cambridge, then qualified as a medical doctor at UCL, with postgraduate training in psychiatry (Imperial) and public health (Johns Hopkins). I worked for a total of six years in the NHS and was struck by the supply-demand gap for mental health services – we were all working long hours, yet the waitlists kept getting longer. This was the early 2000s and the launch of the first smartphones made me interested in thinking about how digital technology could open-up access to mental health services. At this time, I lost two friends to suicide. This tragedy galvanised me to dedicate my career to driving forward with digital access.

Having spent a decade learning medicine, I decided to try to learn technology properly, and spent five years with McKinsey (a consultancy) working on healthcare data projects with clients around the world. After five years, I was offered the chance to put the medical and technology theory into practice by building a new healthcare system in the Middle East. I spent seven years as Director of Public Health in Abu Dhabi, using data to tackle a wide set of population health challenges – from diabetes to cardiovascular disease to cancer and infectious disease. We delivered lots of population health impact and published a lot of papers. So when I moved back to the UK, I was approached by Telefonica (a multinational telecoms giant that owns O2 in the UK) to build a new digital health business. Eight years later, this is now Koa Health, where I am Founder-CEO. I built Koa to tackle the supply-demand gap that I saw in the NHS and we're making good progress!

I was attracted to the Entrepreneur in Residence scheme in which I'm supporting Oxford University in healthcare AI because of three beliefs. Firstly, I believe that AI has matured to a level at which it can transform a whole range of sectors. Secondly, I believe that healthcare has now reached a stage of digitisation in which it can be transformed by AI. Thirdly, I believe that the UK in general, and Oxford in particular, can make a huge contribution to healthcare AI. I'm excited to help!

How do you stay updated with the latest advancements and trends in AI, especially in a large global scene?

Firstly, I think it's important to have a sound working knowledge of the basic concepts in AI and machine learning (ML). I have taken the time to understand the range of machine learning approaches, including how they work, and where they can best be applied. This foundation is really important for understanding new publications and emerging trends. Secondly, I have worked on a set of challenges using AI and ML approaches. This practical experience helps me to understand work led by others. Finally, I am an avid consumer of industry updates, podcasts, and of course journals (especially broad scientific journals such as Nature and Science).

What opportunities does entrepreneurship bring to an academic and scientific career?

My early experience as an academic clinician taught me two things. Firstly, there is no substitute for the transformative role of a great clinician working with an individual patient. At its best, clinical care really does change lives for the better. However, secondly, we shall simply never have enough clinicians to meet demand. This means that we have to innovate to bring new and scalable approaches to healthcare. Put simply, this means that entrepreneurship has the capacity to transform health across entire populations. It's the role of an entrepreneur to identify unmet need, to build a solution to meet that need, and to scale-up that solution. Whilst entrepreneurship is not taught in medical schools (although there are now some excellent MBA programmes) I believe that today's technology and today's global health challenges together create an unprecedented opportunity for healthcare entrepreneurship. Together, we can change the world for the better.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges and opportunities when it comes to building capacity in AI in healthcare and digital health?

I can keep this answer very simple. The single biggest challenge is identifying specific "jobs to be done". AI and ML describe a broad and powerful toolbox of approaches. The greatest challenge is describing a job to be done using this toolbox with sufficient clarity and specificity to apply the right tool(s). In many cases in healthcare, doing this well requires a solid understanding of disease, treatment, patient experience, and the role of the clinician and the wider healthcare system. It also requires an ability to think outside the box, by which I mean an ability to reimagine how care can be delivered beyond the constraints of the current model. As Henry Ford famously said, "if I asked people what they want, they'd say 'faster horses". Building the Ford Model T – as with a lot of technological innovation – requires a deeper understanding of the "job to be done". For Ford, this was transportation (not horses). In healthcare, this may mean finding a way for someone living with a chronic condition (say depression) to manage their own life without the need to see a doctor.

What do you envision as Oxford's role in shaping the future of AI in healthcare?

I believe strongly that the UK can make a leading contribution to healthcare AI over the coming years. The National Health Service in England provides services from cradle to grave for nearly 60 million people. We have invested in data systems across the NHS, alongside initiatives like the BioBank, Open Safely, and Our Future Health, providing the raw material for AI innovation. We have a vibrant financial sector, with seed investors, venture capital, private equity, and a healthy UK stock exchange. We have the world's #1 research university in Oxford and two others in the Top 10. We have a strong history of innovation and entrepreneurship. My vision is that Oxford can be the seed for creating a world-leading healthcare innovation company. This company will work in the market to identify "jobs to be done" both in the current clinical setting, and beyond (e.g., working with service users and patients directly). It will maintain a solid understanding of emerging techniques including AI and machine learning, and other technologies. It will synthesise this understanding of both demand and supply and prioritise innovations. It will develop prototypes, testing them in the NHS and delivering proof of concept. It will then scale these innovations across the world, helping to create thousands of skilled jobs in the UK and to deliver a revolution in health outcomes worldwide.

What have been some of the most important lessons you've learned throughout your career?

I have had the great fortune to study and learn in some incredible places. Over the years, I have been inspired by many amazing teachers – both formal and informal – including countless patients and colleagues. Let me share three lessons I've picked-up along the way. First, it's important to build good intellectual foundations. Knowing the basics is an important first step to knowledge and mastery. Second, keep an open mind. If we always do what we always did, we'll always get what we always got. Put simply, the most amazing innovations come from people with the courage to reframe existing challenges and find new solutions. Third, give back. There have been many, many examples in which I've learned by teaching, mentoring, and engaging with a wide range of people. I am really enjoying my work at Oxford and am excited by the potential to transform careers and to transform healthcare.

Who or what inspires you?

Every day, I am inspired by my amazing wife (Victoria) and our two wonderful daughters. There is nothing in the world more important to me than their happiness and fulfilment. I am inspired by nature in all her forms. I love spending time outdoors and I love reading about research into how nature works. It is a huge privilege to live in the 21st century. We are truly standing on the shoulders of giants, and yet I passionately believe that the best of humanity is yet to come!