If big data is cascading into our lives, how can we absorb what is relevant? Panelists of the Byte Into It discussion of Keep It Going: The Next Big Thing throw up opportunities and challenges. By Thusitha de Silva
One of the buzz phrases in the world today is Big Data. It’s still something relatively new in the mainstream lexicon and yet to be fully understood by many. It’s not a surprise that any conversation about the next big thing will likely see Big Data being discussed. However, Ravi Krishnan of Mach 7 Technologies believes that Big Data is already an abused phrase.
Krishnan is co-founder of the Vermont-based firm that creates vendor-neutral medical image management systems. Sharing images between major vendor systems manufactured by the likes of GE Healthcare, Siemens Healthcare and Shimadzu Corporation can be challenging when it comes to clinical use. Mach 7’s technology allows the effective sharing of images from different systems amid a growing push for healthcare providers to consolidate their products and services. As such, Krishnan is in a good position to comment on Big Data. His view is that it needs to be sharper to have a more targeted impact in his industry. Ideally, Big Data needs to become more personalised. “I think the next big thing is analytics. We need to contextualise data to a personalised requirement. That’s going to big,” he said.
The sort of innovation that Krishnan is looking at will drive change in the healthcare sector going forward. Singapore-based clinical trials expert, Dr Nadina Jose is at the pulse of another segment of the sector. She is the founder of the Anidan Group that was set up in Singapore in late 2011 to bring medical innovations to patients in the shortest possible time. She cites the introduction of Viagra which she feels created a discernible change in the way people think about sexual relationships — more females started to have sex more regularly.
“There is a cultural shift that innovations brings, but we also need to manage our behaviour,” Dr Jose said. She believes that constant innovation is one of the biggest factors about remaining sustainable. For instance, Dr Jose noted that the biopharmaceutical industry has been looking at natural ways of healing as a new direction to develop better medicines. She reckons that the drug industry will have to look at biologics, genetic mapping and integrative treatments that include acupuncture and herbal remedies, if it is to stay relevant.
On The Lookout
The good news is that Dr Jose has observed a lot of innovations in her industry, but many are still in the development phase and likely won’t make it to market. “The patent life of a drug is 20 years. It takes 12 to 15 years to get to market and only five years to make money from it,” she noted. This puts a lot of pressure on pharmaceutical companies to ensure that they can come up with a drug that can provide positive revenue streams for five years. Thus, it is likely that they are always on the lookout for the next big thing. In their terms, the next big thing is a blockbuster drug like Sanofi’s diabetes drug Lantus or Novartis’ prescription cancer treatment Gleevec, both of which will lose their patents this year.
Meanwhile, Krishnan says that the high price of drugs creates a worry for people as they are always wondering if they can afford the medical bill.
“Healthcare has become wealthcare.”
One of the ways to address this, Krishnan says, is prevention. “Detection is best but it doesn’t mean squat. Sharpened big data will at least provide some mitigation. Prevention is the best answer,” he said. Dr Jose concurred with this view. “Prevention is now playing a big role in healthcare, as well as specialisations in integrated medicine,” she said. Dr Jose cited the example of dementia patients in hospitals staying in rooms that mimic what is in a patient’s house. “It is dealt in such a way that the patient realises that they have not been robbed of their life,” she noted. Another big challenge faced by the healthcare industry is that diseases have mutated. “Tuberculosis used to be treated with three difference medications, now we need five,” Dr Jose said.
The themes of Big Data and innovation that Krishnan and Dr Jose refer to are applicable across all industries, even in the “dirty” marine and offshore sector, where Melvin Tan’s company Cyclect Holdings operates. A third-generation family business, the firm, under Tan’s helm, has diversified away from its marine and offshore roots to building energy-efficient power plants and installing solar-powered air-conditioning units. Cyclect’s green technology installations have reduced carbon dioxide emissions by up to 16,000 tons. Of the three key businesses that his firm is involved in — offshore marine, energy and infrastructure — energy is growing most quickly. Cyclect’s plant installations allow heat that is produced during the power generation process to be reused for additional power.
Squeezing even more energy from the power generation process already has the look of the next big thing, especially as it is underpinned by environmental-friendly drivers. Energy demand and consumption are only going to grow as countries continue on their economic growth paths, especially in Asia, and life expectancies rise around the world due to better healthcare protocols. This could potentially lead to a shortage of energy as traditional sources of energy diminish.
“We need a fundamental shift in how governments and consumers think about energy. A shortage of energy will create a lot of pressures.”
Tan believes incremental power production will help to contribute to overall energy capacity, alleviating some of the pressures. To this end, his team at Cyclect is looking at new sustainable energy solutions for their clients including generating power from food waste. “Biomass can be harvested to produce power,” Tan noted.
Another perspective on waste came from Sugianto Tandio, who runs family-owned Indonesian company PT Tirtamata. His business has centred on plastic packaging, which is typically environmentally unfriendly as plastic bags can take up to 1,000 years to degrade completely. Sugianto started to focus on creating more environmentally-friendly plastic material, and his first application was an alternative to plastic bags. His firm came up with a biodegradable plastic called ECOPLAS, with tapioca being its main ingredient.
“As a society, we spent 40 years living in sin, and in the last four years, we have tried to redeem ourselves.”
Sugianto sought to make plastics out of tapioca because it is one of the easiest plants to grow and is grown all over Indonesia by rural farmers. Hailing from Tangerang in Java, he saw the problems faced by local farmers and wanted to do something about it. Sugianto intentionally takes a holistic approach to his work and is concerned about the increasing income inequality across the world. “People are living longer and longer, but their happiness is getting lower and lower,” he noted.
Despite the different industry segments in which Krishnan, Dr Jose, Tan and Sugianto work , all of them agreed that there is one enabler of innovation that could lead to the next big thing—collaboration. “Energy, engineering, healthcare, hospitality will be talking to each other,” said Tan. But collaboration is not an easy task as people in different industries tend to have a silo mentality.
Boxed In By Bureaucracy
“The culture has to be open to thinking outside the box. But holding on to culture and traditions is a safe place for Asians,” noted Dr Jose. Krishnan affirmed that collaboration was key to moving forward. “All the Berlin Walls have to come down. Usually it is the financial bureaucracy that brings a stop to this. Bureaucracy tends to hinder a lot of things,” he said.
But Sugianto noted that collaboration among businesses is not easy. For example, there is potential to use his tapioca-based plastic bags as doggie poo bags in the United States. “There are 20 million dogs in the US. Pet care seems to be one of the industries in the country that is recession-proof. Our biodegradable plastic bags would be ideal as dog poo bags,” he said. Still, he said the challenge is about how to get the authorities in the United States to collaborate. “The internet has made the world borderless, but there are still protectionist barriers,” Sugianto said.
The issue of collaboration is important as it will help to sharpen Big Data and make it easier to manage risks in a more timely fashion. “I have observed that reaction to risk is always delayed. We need a dynamic risk-management system. How do we leverage on technology to track risks as they occur and act on it?” Dr Jose asked. While she was referring to the healthcare sector, this perspective is applicable across all industries. Most importantly, Big Data needs to be the right data and in the right context. This will certainly involve collaboration between industries, disciplines as well as job functions.
In their own ways, Krishnan, Dr Jose, Tan and Sugianto have long identified the next big things in their respective industries and are making their journeys towards that. But they each recognise that they can’t get there on their own and this will increasingly be the case as further technology developments kick in. And then there is also a chance that their views on the next big thing will change again.
As Krishnan noted: “Not everything that can be counted, counts.”