Interview with MediChain Founder Dr. Baker; Using Blockchain for Medical Research
MediChain founder Dr. Baker believes a blockchain-powered medical data platform can go a long way in curing diseases such as cancer.
In this interview we sit down with Dr. Mark Baker, CEO and Founder of the MediChain Medical Big Data Platform, a blockchain solution for medical data storage and distribution. The platform gives patients control over their own medical information and allows for the secure exchange of medical records while also protecting sensitive data from hackers. Dr. Baker has a background in cancer research, and is a big data specialist. He believes MediChain will be a groundbreaking tool for medical researchers who could gain access to wider data and more comprehensive data sets.
What drew you to cancer research in the first place?
Dr. Mark Baker: I wanted to work in a field that would have a very high impact and make a big difference for the world. Cancer is obviously a disease that affects millions of people and is one of the biggest killers. I was looking at things where a more systematic, more numerical approach might make a difference for a large number of people, and cancer research seemed to be the thing.
And how did you start working in the data science field?
Dr. Mark Baker: So, this is really fundamental, the leverage that humans have over the world is based on a very limited handful of mental tools. And what are those tools? We have things such as logic, which allows us to make decisions that are separate from our own feelings. Mathematics allows us to make sense of things beyond what our brains are evolved to handle. Data science is an application of mathematics on a huge scale. The big leverage we have is using mathematics and science. We are just coming to an era where we have the techniques to use mathematics in medical science, and what we call that today is data science. Because of the stochastic nature of the data, it’s not been possible to apply the types of revolutionary things that happened in the 19th century in physics. This leads us to a simple answer. We have to approach this from a different direction, and data science is how we do it.
So how did you end up working in both fields combined? Did you start in one and then move to the other? How did that progression happen for you?
Dr. Mark Baker: Well, I started off computing when I was nine years old. My father was a lecturer in electronics, and to keep me busy during summer vacation he would give me access to the mainframe computer where he taught. I was so small that I couldn’t actually reach the console of the computer, so I used to stand on piles of computer paper to reach it. It was a fully powered IBM mainframe, so that’s where I learned. I had a moderately successful startup before going to university, where I developed a new method of holography which required a single, coherent point, no mirrors, and a particular orientation and type of photographic plate to work it. Then I entered Imperial College as a bio chemist, followed by a master’s in biophysics and bioengineering, and that led me on to Oxford. I came out and worked in the pharmaceutical industry on algorithms, which were a new thing then, and parallel data processing, and I even had to design my own hardware in order to get the processing speeds we needed.
Is there any particular advice you would give to your younger self? Are there any regrets that you have?
Dr. Mark Baker: Not regrets really. Each thing you do on your path makes you the person you are, so who would want to change it? But I would say to my younger self—and I see other young people making the same mistake—when you see an opportunity, you should take it. And not just follow the conventional course.
What inspired you to initiate this MediChain project?
Dr. Mark Baker: I had certainly been thinking about big data for many years with colleagues from Oxford. For some time, we've been discussing and developing the ideas about how we would share data, how every piece of data needs to be digitally signed so it can be accessible, so we know where it came from, what the sources are.
About three years ago, Edinburgh University reached out to me about creating a startup to do predictive analytics using NHS data. They wanted to work out what the best treatments were, what the best practices were, what the hidden negative or positive side effects of drug treatments might be, and what else they might be able to do. That project didn't take off, but I had really formulated exactly how we should use the data and what we would be doing. So then blockchain came along, and that seemed like a natural opportunity.
It had the cryptic caching that we had already been talking about, and it had a lot of the functionality distribution that we needed. And, of course, there's already been a lot of work done on the data sets, and it was really about just pulling them together. I also had the experience of the US health system in San Francisco, and it gave me the idea of how fragmented other health systems were. So I could see that there was a need for patients in the US to pull their data together, to get control of it.
Of course, over the years there have been violations of people's privacy and data integrity, and I always felt that one could approach this the other way around. As people become more mature and understand the value of their own data, there would be some value in letting them control their own data fully.
I was wondering how this project could actually benefit people from developing countries, because right now it’s not very profitable for pharmaceutical companies to invest in countries that can’t afford medications and drug development. If people from developing countries could offer their data to pharmaceutical companies because it has monetary value, they could benefit.
Dr. Mark Baker: That's a definite issue. We don't want to have a situation where people feel that they're selling their data because they're too poor to access healthcare. Nevertheless, I think there is an opportunity to revolutionize the system in large developing countries. In the case of India, for example, a large proportion of the population have smart phones now, and so they can go straight into a system, which is essentially a big data system, and get the benefits. In the Indian market, each consumer individually has a lower per capita value to a pharmaceutical company, but the market as a whole is another matter. The Indian economy is roughly the size of the European countries, and is likely to grow over time.
After getting started on this project, have you had any doubts?
Dr. Mark Baker: I think it's a matter of challenge. I don't know that there were doubts. There are dozens of major challenges that we have to overcome, and I think we have a roadmap for doing that. But it wouldn't be wise to underestimate the size of these challenges. There have been a lot of capable people who have put a lot of time and effort into this sort of thing and haven't succeeded, so we need to make sure that we're humble and we listen, and we try to get people who can help us learn. The overall challenge is very large. So we can break it down, we can take it in pieces. We can make sure that we mitigate risk. But we recognize that the challenges are substantial.
One final question: what comes next for you in your master plan?
Dr. Mark Baker: Well, from MediChain itself, if the opportunities to grow remain in the world of blockchain, there are a number of closely related blockchain projects which could spin out and become subsidiaries. Things like IoT. Things like remote medical services, like doctors on demand. All those become data sources for MediChain, but each merits its own project. They're natural subsidiaries which would be feeding into the same ecosystem – so basically wide cooperation in the medical field. Because that makes sense.