Here’s how life-saving drugs are born: first they’re developed, then they go through years of testing, first on animals, then humans, and the safe ones finally come to market. The whole process takes, on average, 15 years.
But in a world where everything seems to be digitised, research scientists have no standard digital platform to store and share their pre-clinical data.
“To prove that a new drug is reliable and safe, you have to be able to replicate research results in different labs. At present, 50% of pre-clinical research can’t be replicated – at a cost of £22bn per year – and much of that is down to human error,” says Chris Armstrong, co-founder of Overwatch Research.
He goes on. “As a scientist my toolkit is a pen, a notebook, and Microsoft Excel – somewhere along the line I’ll type in the wrong numbers, or not be able to read my own writing, and things get lost in translation.”
Chris teamed up with a set of brothers who brought exactly the skills needed to form a startup. Co-founders Graham and Paul Wilsdon bring development and design experience, respectively, and they brought Chris’ concept to life in a complete enterprise software package.
What does Overwatch track?
Chris says, “All of the study design is set in one format. Data analysis and tracking is all automated, so responsibility is removed from the researchers.”
Is Overwatch a software, or a set of protocols – or both?
“The protocols are embedded in the software – you’re able to select the type of experiment you want to do. Then the way the data is tracked and analysed is consistent all the way through,” Graham says.
The popular chicken eatery Nando’s is an unlikely setting for a spark of invention – but that’s where Overwatch was conceived. It’s snowballed quickly from there.
Chris says, “Over dinner at Nando’s, I laid out my ideas, and Graham and Paul said the development was feasible. That was around 14 months ago and we started with wire frames and sketches. In February 2018 we attacked it full time - we were accepted on to the Propel pre-accelerator and both Graham and Paul quit their jobs to focus on product development. We’re all in, now.”
That snowball might be an avalanche soon. The men were discussing possible plans to move to the US on the day we met.
Where is Overwatch going next?
Paul responds, “We officially launched the product just last week – we’ve been in trial officially with contract research organisations, one of them based in Coleraine.”
He goes on, “We’re talking to a number of facilities over in America, including universities and pharmaceutical companies – we have warm leads in Boston, Dublin, London and Australia.”
The team explains to me the systematic approach they’ve taken to R&D so far.
“Over these 14 months we’ve spoken to many researchers – and we kept iterating. We didn’t commit to writing any code until we were confident of what we were making. Instead of making it overly complex we needed to get a prototype out quickly. Mentors told us: it’s about doing one thing really well, instead of 25 things okay,” says Graham.
I presume it’s cloud-based?
Graham says, “It needs to be accessible from mobile, tablet, desktop - because researchers move around and they attend conferences – they can check on their experiment from anywhere.”
Chris says, “Academic facility and the CRO can all have instant communication and collaboration on the projects. That’s important for time-saving.”
Overwatch’s platform also supports Bluetooth-enabled calipers that are used for measurement in experiments.
Graham says, “We’re trying to get around transcription error by building in as many hardware implements as possible.”
The close-knit founders then explain to me how being friends and family is crucial to their early success.
“I wouldn’t want to start a business with strangers – we’ve grown up together, and we’re completely honest with each other,” says Paul, the elder Wilsdon.
“The Co-founders programme at Catalyst was massively important to us, getting us on the right track, providing mentors and connecting us to the right people in Belfast’s tech ecosystem,” said Chris.
“Half of success is just showing up – it’s true,” says Paul.
What else do you want people to know?
“Have you seen our promotional video? You need to see it,” Paul says excitedly. He previously worked at Kainos in design – and it occurs to me that they’re probably missing his energy.
“We also want to communicate the message that for pharmaceutical companies, sometimes drugs are dead ends and that could come at a cost of £2-5bn per drug that they’ve already spent. With our system, they could find that sooner,” says Chris.
Will you take investment?
“We’re currently playing out the idea of bootstrapping,” says Graham.
Paul agrees. “Now we’re thinking well, is it possible? Because of all the leads we’ve gotten.”
Chris says, “If we’d be able to build the business based on revenue we’d be happy to take it that way. However, we do see the need to scale fast and investment may help to achieve that. We are keeping our options open.”
Overwatch Research is a finalist in the 2018 Invent competition in the Enterprise category.