Each month we profile an innovative, growing company from across the Greater South East of England. CamBioScience is a an emerging force in the field of AI and machine-based learning for the life sciences community, making deep data more user friendly. The company provides advanced e-learning training courses, transforming the way people and businesses operate. Here CEO, Dr Chibeza C. Agley, shares an inside look into to the company's journey so far, and the launch of its new platform, Obrizum.
Over the last three years, CamBioScence has been changing the way the life sciences sector learns online. Tell us a bit about what drew you to the EdTech space in this sector and what keeps driving you now?
When we started CamBioScience, the three founders were all working as research fellows at the Wellcome Trust Medical Research Council on subjects such as biophysics, stem cell biology and genetics. We noticed that, although we were at a leading, cutting edge university, many students, researchers and professors were struggling to adopt some of the most recent advances in technology. It seemed that a lot of the new developments in technology were happening so fast that it was difficult to keep up with the pace of change. And this wasn’t just in Cambridge. It was happening everywhere in large universities and organisations.
We decided that there was a market for wrapping up some of the emerging technologies into readily consumable educational programmes and the timing was right. We started to demonstrate our ideas at two-day intensive courses with international experts and there was a very strong demand for this. It seemed the problem of adopting rapidly accelerating technology was a global one.
So, we had something that was working on a face-to-face level but it wasn’t going reach everyone in the world. To do that we needed to use cloud computing to produce something fully scalable. At that point we reinvested absolutely everything we had into building a cloud platform so we could offer programmes online. We called this platform Obrizum.
As an academic team, how did you find the transition to the commercial sector?
Early on, when I spoke to people about career opportunities I was often told that scientists struggle to communicate and are not good at business. But I looked at the people around me and saw very strong communicators with excellent problem-solving skills who were extremely motivated and resilient. I wanted to challenge the perception that scientists couldn’t be great business people. At the end of the day, if you’re able to solve complex problems quickly, you’re motivated and willing to work all hours of the day and night why can’t you be an entrepreneur? I started with that fire and it proved to be true.
My co-founders were some of the best scientists at the institute and they turned out to be excellent business people. We started the company with absolutely no money and grew it organically over the first two and a half years as a profitable enterprise before we even began raising money, with the aim of building a global powerhouse in corporate educational technology. I think that, in reality, the life sciences sector is a great source of entrepreneurs and it’s an untapped resource of people who are very good at solving real world problems.
How did the initial support from Angels in MedCity (AiMC) help you? What type of support did you really need in those early days?
There is an inevitable point in any ambitious company’s development where you need connections and funding to continue your journey . We hit the point where if we really wanted to become a respected, well-known enterprise we need to start raising capital.
We had an ongoing partnership with Sarah from MedCity, who has been a great source of inspiration and advice for us. Through Sarah we came to the AiMC programme. We were given training at workshops and ultimately were able to attend an event where we pitched to business angels. The workshops provided us with a lot of intelligence about how to structure our pitches. We got a lot of great feedback from investors, which we followed up on and subsequently secured investment for our seed round. It was a fantastic way to get us to that next stage in our journey.
You’ve just received £1.1 million to grow your learning platform Obrizum – what problem is Obrizum looking to solve?
Obrizum is Latin for pure gold and in Roman times became synonymous with assessment, referencing the testing process for gold, which involved repeatedly putting it into fire to increase its purity and discern it from lesser minerals. We liked that analogy because it reflects the way our AI works, repeatedly carrying out mini-assessments to collect data so we can direct people around a learning space in a way that is personal to them.
We want Obrizum to become a global super power in the e-learning space for large organisations, corporate, educational or otherwise. We have incorporated automation so that using our technology e-learning programmes can be created almost instantaneously from any material, dramatically reducing the curation time for putting a curriculum together. Before you would have to source the content, organise it, put it in order and make it look nice which, even for a short course, could take many months. With Obrizum you can automate large parts of that process so courses can be created quickly and then we use AI to personalise each individual journey. It doesn’t matter if it’s one person or a billion, the AI will calculate the level of understanding, strengths and weaknesses, and the location of focus necessary in terms of the content available.
It also gives course managers solid data on the impact of learning for an individual or organisation that has previously been lacking in the e-learning space. We aim to allow organisations to make data-driven decisions based on the knowledge capital within its environment. For example you can start to assess who would make the best teams for specific sub-projects, look at whether sales people really understand value-proposition and if the organisation has any knowledge-gaps that need correction .
Obrizum can be applied in so many ways but I would summarise our differentiating factor with our three A’s – automation, adaptability and analytics.
What has the reception so far been like?
There’s definitely excitement about how e-learning can be connected for the first-time to an organisation’s bottom line. For example, if you’re a biotech organisation it can answer questions such as how do customer education programmes help indicate which products and services might be best suited to that particular customer? It can provide marketing that is useful to the user, using education as a form to do that.
Clients are also excited about the more granular adaptability we offer through our technology. Many existing providers are funnelling users into basic, medium and advanced categories and calling that adaptive e-learning but our platform is something that can change in real-time based on subtle changes in users’ understanding.
On a wider level, what do you think the future holds for AI in the health care and life science sectors?
I think it’s amazing to see what’s happened over the last few years. AI has been around for some time but has had a resurgence as more people understand how to use the technology better to take the load off human decision-making. I think AI can have a profound impact on health care, enabling us to pick up patterns that the human brain would take 100 years or more to extract. I’m a big fan of AI being used appropriately to accelerate advances in health care and I think we’re going to see it contributing heavily over years to come.
There is of course the other side of the coin, where people are using the term AI just because it sounds sexy. That can be distracting, especially if it’s done poorly in the health care space, and it can have a negative impact because it raises hopes around some of the technologies that aren’t going to end up yielding good results. But for the people that are doing proper work, actually finding new drug targets and mining data in a way that is going to benefit patients , that’s going to be really fantastic.
As a company that started out of Cambridge, what would you say are some of the strengths of London and the South East as a global hub for life science innovation?
I think when it comes to education the UK’s reputation is outstanding and in the London/Cambridge/Oxford triangle we’re lucky to have so many of the world’s greatest universities.
But something else I really value is our attitude to education in the UK. Education is something we hold in high regard in the UK and there is relatively more freedom. If you’re doing a PhD for example, you can take time to do the research without having to publish a paper and you can work on pure research topics that are respected and that’s really great.
In addition, the attitude to collaboration is wonderful in UK academic institutions. There are a lot of interdisciplinary discussions between institutions and that helps us stay on top of the field. There’s a great attitude to sharing information, and an increasing push for entrepreneurism and help for spin-outs from academic backgrounds to be successful. All in all, we’re doing pretty well when it comes to the education side of things.
What advice would you give to other start-ups looking to enter the field?
Prepare yourself! What I would say is that I knew starting a business would be difficult, but I didn’t know just how tough it would be. It’s more gruelling than anything I’ve ever done – it tests absolutely every fibre in your body and you’ve got to be totally aware of what you’re getting into. But it’s also one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life.
You need to be resilient. It’s vital to be on top of your numbers and where you invest your money. I think one of the reasons we survived the first few dangerous years is that we were extremely good at bootstrapping. Practising and understanding what bootstrapping really means will help companies survive those early days. And if you can survive long enough, a lot of opportunities will present themselves. It really is survival of the fittest in those early years.
Where do you want to see CamBioScience and Obrizum in five years from now?
I would like us to be the dominant force when it comes to e-learning technology. I want to see us in all the major markets with all the large organisations using us to train their people and customers, and to be continuously developing innovative, disruptive ways of teaching people. And beyond that, I’d like us to engage more with the neuroscience community and deliver hard demonstrable results for clients that can also be published in scientific papers. Overall, just being the leader!