Building the digital biotech of the future

Posted by Mike Walsh

Nov 3, 2021 2:33:05 PM



Most are familiar with the story of how Moderna was able to rapidly develop and deploy a successful COVID19 vaccine during the pandemic. Not long after Chinese scientists first put the genetic sequence of the novel coronavirus online, Moderna went from sequencing to shipping in a matter of months. To put that in perspective, a vaccine typically takes ten years to bring to market. What is less known is that Moderna never intended to be a company focused on making coronavirus vaccines - it was simply an opportunity that emerged out of having the right capabilities and infrastructure in place.


When Moderna was founded in 2010, it set the vision of being a digital biotech platform capable of broadly exploring the potential of mRNA technology. When news of the pandemic first emerged, Moderna was working on a number of mRNA-based medicines, including those focused on heart disease, Zika, and cancer. However, Moderna's founders believed that if mRNA technology worked for one application, it could work for countless more, and all that would be needed was to change the information and code it for a new application. 


When I spoke with Dave Johnson, Chief Data and AI Officer at the company, he explained that mRNA is an information-based platform. Similar to a computer's operating system, researchers can insert new genetic code from a virus to create a novel vaccine quickly and safely. In fact, it was the software-like, digital nature of mRNA technology that inspired Moderna to fashion themselves in the form of a new type of digital biotech company with AI, algorithms, and automation at its core.


Dave Johnson is Chief Data and Artificial Intelligence Officer at Moderna, where he is responsible for all enterprise data capabilities from data engineering, data integration, data science, and software engineering. Johnson holds a PhD in Information Physics and has over 15 years of experience in software engineering and data science. He has spent more than a decade working exclusively in enterprise pharma and biotech companies.



In this episode you will learn: 


02:13 How Moderna brought a COVID19 vaccine to market so quickly
04:10 The value of investing in capabilities rather than competencies
06:20 How Moderna is different from a more traditional pharma company
10:02 The future of personalized cancer vaccines
11:27 Why there is so much misplaced optimism about AI in biotech
13:33 The Moderna digital platform
18:34 Why data scientists are not data analysts



CATEGORY: Pharmaceutical

AI Genomics. Is this the future of health?

Posted by Mike Walsh

Jan 28, 2021 6:12:09 AM

Jo Bhakdi


What if within the span of the next decade, we could live for an additional ten years or more? A hundred years ago, advances in infection control and public health led to a near doubling of the human life span. For us to achieve a similar feat today, we will need more than just scientific breakthroughs. Despite the rise of AI, powerful computation platforms and new discoveries in genomics, there is still a gap between everyday medical practice and technological innovation.


Jo Bhakdi is the founder and CEO of Quantgene, a biotechnology and data company. In his view, when it comes to medical diagnoses, we are largely reliant on snapshot testing, quick discussions regarding patient symptoms, and the brain power of the practicing physicians.


AI-powered genomics, by contrast, allows us to now turn biology into a data problem, moving at the speed of statistical model development and falling computation costs. Genetic testing has the potential to uncover the root cause of disease and reveal its progression in the body - thus redefining the healthcare paradigm.


One area where this technology has the potential to impact our life expectancy is early stage cancer detection. Many cancers are treatable if caught early enough. While traditional medicine tends to intervene only when a tumor is advanced enough to warrant investigation, Quantgene has developed he capability to detect multiple types of cancer from a simple blood test. By identifying cellular mutations using artificial intelligence analytics and big data, they can unlock where a cancer is encoding itself into the human genome.



In this episode you will learn:


01:28 The unexpected implications of extreme longevity

04:31 Jo's origin story

06:19 Reimagining cancer detection

15:38 Healthcare is a system of broken incentives

30:20 Digital transformation & Big Pharma

35:29 Delivering innovation at scale

43:35 Privacy, rights and personal data


CATEGORY: Healthcare, AI

Algorithms, AI and the alignment problem

Posted by Mike Walsh

Dec 9, 2020 4:08:49 AM

Brian Christian


As we become more reliant on AI, algorithms and automation to manage the complexity of our world - we also face the challenge of systems that not aligned with our values or even our intentions. 


For Brian Christian, this is not unlike the position of Mickey Mouse in the Disney classic, ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’, who suddenly finds himself overwhelmed by magic beyond his control. In his words, ‘we conjure a force, autonomous but totally compliant, give it a set of instructions, then scramble like mad to stop it once we realize our instructions are imprecise or incomplete—lest we get, in some clever, horrible way, precisely what we asked for’. 


Brian Christian is one of my favorite writers on AI, with a unique perspective that is very much at the intersection of computer science and philosophy. He is the author of the acclaimed bestsellers ‘The Most Human Human’ and ‘Algorithms To Live By’, which have been translated into nineteen languages. A visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, he lives in San Francisco. His latest book, and the subject of this interview, is ‘The Alignment Problem’. 



In this episode you will learn:


02:30 Brian’s origin story

05:01 Convergence: social sciences & tech

08:20 The alignment problem defined

14:12 AI Safety & the black box problem

18:28 Addressing the issue of bias

27:18 Business vs technical questions

37:06 Reinforcement learning

45:40 Challenging the system

52:45 Future skills




Disinformation wars, robot uprisings and differential privacy

Posted by Mike Walsh

Oct 8, 2020 8:15:47 AM



A US election is far more than just a struggle for the most powerful job in the world; it also provides a glimpse into consumer attitudes and emerging technologies designed to influence opinion. It was during the 2012 US election, for instance, that social media, online data and e-commerce profiling was leveraged for the first time to create a hyper-targeted, digital political campaign, that ultimately swept the Democrats into power. My guest this week, Harper Reed, was intimately involved in that strategy, having served as CTO of the Obama 2012 campaign, where he was the first to bring the mentality and connective capabilities of the tech industry to the political stage.


I’ve known Harper for a number of years now. We met on the technology speaking circuit, and stayed in touch with a common passion for Leica rangefinders and film photography. Harper has a unique perspective - especially on those shadowy areas where disruptive tech intersects with society, culture and economics.


Prior to his current (stealth) startup, he worked at PayPal, as Head of Commerce and as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence. The technology he developed as co-founder at his business Modest Inc. had garnered the attention of PayPal, which led them to acquire Modest only a few years after launch. He was also the CTO of, where he pioneered crowdsourcing and grew the company from a 12 person startup to a multi-million dollar enterprise. Harper is an MIT Media Lab Director’s Fellow, sits on the advisory boards for IIT Computer Science and the Royal United Service Institute, and is on the Cornell College Board of Trustees.



In this episode you will learn:


0:00 Living in the dystopia we deserve

05:58 Lessons from the 2012 election

18:33 The 2020 political tech stack

21:58 The rise of the robots

28:23 Differential privacy

38:26 The ethics of unintended consequences


CATEGORY: Technology

How Mastercard uses their innovation lab to co-create with their customers

Posted by Mike Walsh

Oct 1, 2020 1:58:41 AM



Despite all the talk about fintech disruption - banking, finance, and payments remain highly regulated industries with well-established competitors who are not standing still - even in this moment of rapid change and digital reinvention. Mastercard is one such company. They created Mastercard Labs as a way of co-creating and innovating with their customers. The idea was to turn external signals into opportunities, and in' doing so, de-risk' them for their clients and for the rest of the organization. So, for example, they are working on quantum computing with IBM. They have established their own proprietary blockchain and several AI projects and were behind the Apple Card's tokenization, which allowed it to work without the standard 16 digits.


To learn more about how Mastercard manages their innovation portfolio, I spoke with Ken Moore, who is the Chief Innovation Officer at Mastercard and also Head of Mastercard Labs. Ken is responsible for the company's R&D initiatives globally. Prior to joining Mastercard, he was a Director at Citibank, where he established Citi's first Innovation Lab and subsequently expanded it globally to create a network of collaborative innovation centers across the company.



In this episode, you will learn:


0:00 How the pandemic has changed consumer behavior

3:00 Why Mastercard needed an innovation lab

10:16 The importance of de-risking innovation

13:51 How to use innovation portfolios

21:14 The future customer journey

26:49 Engaging the startup community

29:38 Learning from the Chinese payments ecosystem

33:07 Mastercard’s 7 innovation portfolios