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An Interview with founder of Sparrho Dr Vivian Chan

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Health Tech World speaks to Australian-British entrepreneur Dr Vivian Chan about her entrepreneurial journey and her pioneering start-up.

Chan is the founder of Sparrho; a platform that aims to ‘democratise science’ by making scientific knowledge more accessible.

When it comes to science and healthcare, much of the information available is not written and presented in a way that can be understood by the public. It is usually written in a language that is not easily understood and it is often placed behind pricey paywalls.

According to Sparrho, this creates a barrier to forming trust with customers and clients. In the life sciences sector, the Cambridge-based company has worked with pharmaceutical and biotech companies to break down this barrier.

Founded in 2013, Sparrho uses machine learning and AI to analyse a huge number of scientific papers, which it then curates and summarises for a wider audience.

In the Autumn of 2018, Dr Chan was named one of the UK’s Top 100 BAME leaders in Technology by the FT and Inclusive Boards. She was also named in the MIT Tech Review’s 35 Under 35 Innovators in 2017, and the Top 5 Asian Stars in UK Tech in 2018.

What is your professional background prior to starting Sparrho?

I ended up in the commercialisation of science pretty early on working as a life science investor. My undergraduate and my investment days were in Australia, then I was offered the opportunity to come over to the UK to study, so I did my PhD at Cambridge.

Cambridge is a very entrepreneurial ecosystem and I was very much exposed to that. With my background as an investor, I found it quite refreshing to be on the other side of the conversation.

There were many support frameworks for trying things out and there were several entrepreneurial programmes. Through that, I ended up meeting my co-founder Niluka Satharasinghehe who read machine learning at Oxford.

Why did you start Sparrho?

I was a life science investor before my PhD days, and it was during those times where I needed to stay on top of the latest research. I had to access, understand and then make informed professional investment decisions by knowing how to evaluate the research from universities.

So that was when I hit on the problem, that cutting-edge science in the status quo is written in a technical format and published in publications that are behind paywalls that make it harder for the wider audience to access.

Our mission as a company is to address the questions: how do we get the latest but relevant science presented to the right audience, at the right level and using the right channels? That’s what we’re setting out to build.

How does the Sparrho platform work?

The platform uses artificial intelligence that is augmented by a network of researchers globally. So, using machine learning, we can aggregate and curate over 60 million pieces of scientific content.

We use machine learning for the curation of relevant cutting-edge research that is integrated into our clients’ websites, allowing them to help their doctors, HCPs and technical audiences stay on top of the cutting-edge research.

We have a large network of researchers from over 100 countries that can actually take this further and do what machines can’t quite do yet, which is multi-document summarisation for science, targeted at a layman audience.

That’s where the human experts have come in really powerfully. We have a growing network of 130,000 of these globally, from a very wide majority of different sciences.

We’re assigned to use trusted science in this world of misinformation to distribute and to help organisations with their marketing and communications.

Do you have any new products on the horizon?

We’re currently developing a product for SMEs which is targeted at digital healthcare brands, which we think will really help with organisations that only have a light marketing team.

What we are seeing is that most SMEs want to have a digital presence, but they are lacking the right kind of content. They are also wanting the content to be packaged in a much simpler way with a plug and play method whereby they can just drop content into their existing website or blog.

What we’re building is a content page of summarised science that marketeers can log into and then, depending on the positioning of the marketing sales funnel, they can export the content into the right kind of channels.

For example, we have clients who are wanting to decrease bounce rates and increase traffic conversion on their websites. And we’ve been able to export out the summarised science into a chatbot and integrate the chatbot onto our client’s websites.

We’ve seen some very interesting results showing the chatbot is already helping them with decreasing bounce rates, increasing traffic conversion and helping them with their SEO strategy.

When do you plan to launch the SME product?

We’re aiming for later this year in quarter four, but we have already been working with clients who have expressed an interest, so we’ve started to build out the product with them. We’re open to hearing from more digital healthcare brands who are interested in being part of the co-building stage.

How does Sparrho benefit the academic community?

It’s helping the research community build trust. We provide a place not just for academics to stay on top of research, but also to showcase their own thought leadership.

Researchers generally choose to do research because they want to solve problems and make an impact in the world. So, the underlying mission and vision of our business really do align well with them.

What we have been able to do is help guide them and create frameworks to help them synthesise down their research or showcase their thought leadership to help them build their own brand.

How did COVID-19 affect the business?

There was a lot of change and shift in March and April, but coming out of April, we took that as an opportunity, and it was during this time that the decision was made to focus on building out the SME product and taking our vision further.

Why is access to academic research so important during the pandemic?

Individuals want to be able to understand what’s happening and to make their own decisions because there is an increased amount of mistrust and misinformation floating around, especially in this digital age of social media.

We’re starting to see a really important need for people to make their own decisions. For example, on whether it’s safe to go back to work.

Questions people are trying to answer are: What are the different types of testing? Why does it take so long for vaccines to get created? What does herd immunity mean? All those questions are now becoming a global conversation.

I think now the public generally have a better understanding of science and the importance of the research behind it.

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