Michael Ditmore is the Co-founder and Executive Director of Novim. He currently serves on the Director’s Council of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at UCSB.
Sachin Gaur, Executive Editor, interviews him regarding the technological advancement in various sectors with an emphasis on the healthcare sector
1. Given your vast experience in building technology businesses. What is the hard part of building a technology business? What advice would you give your 20-year-old self if you were to start again?.
It’s never the technology – it’s always the team. Finding the right mix of creativity and compatibility amongst the founders and core group is one of the most difficult things to accomplish in a startup.
2. Increasingly we are breaking new ground when it comes to healthcare technology. What are the top challenges you see in building healthcare businesses?.
Again, it’s never the technology–here I believe it is coordinating between human expectations and societal systems, and the timing can be critical. Get too far ahead of what people will accept and you have no market–in healthcare that means both doctors and their patients. Medicine by definition is conservative and derivative. Doctors wish to do no harm, but they also need to derive income from the skills they were taught–threaten either of those premises, and regardless of the brilliance of your technology, you will go nowhere. Likewise, if you get too far in front of what societal systems (government payers) will accept, you face a long and probably fruitless struggle.
3. In a horizon of 3-5 years do you see any major advancements in the healthcare field, if yes, can you share your insights on what kind of these advances would be?.
I think there is general agreement that the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) will be broad, deep and disruptive in the healthcare field. Even now, healthcare regulators are struggling to approve AI approaches to a number of fields and conditions. We have recently seen the first tentative FDA approval of AI screening in mammography–others will certainly follow. Getting doctors and patients up to speed on these new tools will take time and training.
4. Healthcare delivery has been costly both in terms of time and money. We have seen during the pandemic how collectively as humanity we pushed boundaries. Can we be more sustainable from here onwards in a systematic manner or will we go back to the old mindset and maintain the status quo of rising costs for healthcare.
Given human nature and the systems we construct, I think a bit of both will happen. As the pandemic fades from immediate perception, aided in part by our ever shortening attention spans (fed by a hyperactive media), we will struggle to maintain focus on what threats are actually most dangerous. Continuing misinformation and disinformation will only compound our struggle with that focus. Nevertheless, institutional elements within society seem to be getting better at adapting to this ever increasing rate of change and may actually evolve their “over the horizon” vision to the benefit of us all. I am an eternal optimist and I do see many things getting better.
5. What can be done to improve our agility in general to responding to crisis situations. (Next pandemic are we ready for it ?).
I don’t think we will ever be as ready as we could/should be. But, having said that, I believe we are getting incrementally better. Our tools, especially those developed during COVID (mRNA, CRISPR-CAS9) are definitely expanding at an astonishing rate and will find application in solving increasingly complex challenges
6. With the new geopolitical situation, we see questions being raised about the global supply chain. What kind of cross border collaboration would you see emerge from here? Especially between the USA and India.
In my view, India and the US have acted both gallantly and selfishly as current crises have evolved. The sharing of ideas and technologies has been particularly magnanimous, but when faced with perceived threats to their own populations, like most countries, they have tended to act in a more protectionist and self-centred manner. The result has been to damage the trust and efficiency of a global trading system that has taken decades to develop.
7. When it comes to frontiers of science and technology, at times there is a lot of controversy involved. Think CRISPR, Genetically modified crops, geoengineering. What is your view on unresolved questions around emerging technologies in addressing the big challenges we face now ? (climate change for example).
Here again, unfortunately, the media has often not been our friend. Technology, like science, tends to be agnostic–for every good use, someone will find a bad one. But the way in which many of these breakthroughs are presented to the public can be unfortunate. GMO crops can be life-saving and a genuine answer to global starvation, but many people are needlessly terrified of them. CRISPER holds promise to eradicate truly horrible maladies, but it also may be used to tweek the human condition in vain and unpredictable ways. Geoengineering can actually cool the planet, but when to use it, at whose authority and with what unintended consequences is something worthy of real and thorough scientific study. And climate change, that grandest of all perceived threats to humanity, needs to be viewed with cooler eyes. Despite what you read, not every natural disaster is being driven by climate change. Nor is it proceeding at such breakneck speed that we need to stampede ourselves into policies that may well bankrupt our economies or blind us to wiser solutions. Perhaps most importantly, we must not let our fear of climate change–or any other change–lead us to proscribe the energy solutions so badly needed by so much of the world.
8. Organisations such as yours, NOVIM, work to improve the understanding of cutting edge technologies. Why do we need them even more now? Do you see an urgent need for such actors with sustainability and climate change topics in mind?.
In our lifetimes we’ve all seen the devastation of war and famine and disease, and we’ve read histories of conditions far worse in the past. As much as we might wish it, change is one thing we cannot avoid, and in many instances change works to our betterment. What seems different to me now is the rate of change has accelerated to the point where we have difficulty understanding it, planning on how to adapt to it, and accurately separating good change from the not so good–or even dangerous. To twist a Mark Twain quote that is even truer today than when he said it: “Misinformation can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”
It is incumbent on us as members of a modern society to learn to discern the truth from the untruth, the meaning from the distortion, the science from the ignorance. That is what NOVIM strives to do.
9. Any key message for our readers on which areas to focus that can make healthcare more sustainable and affordable.
Read and learn everything you can about the rapidly changing world of healthcare, and then apply what you have learned to the benefit of your family, community, country and the world. These are incredibly fascinating times to be alive–and you have more opportunities than ever before to help your fellow man.