Neil Daly, Founder and CEO of Skin Analytics, reveals what it’s like to establish and grow a successful venture that saves lives.
Skin Analytics provides cancer screening services at the intersection of AI and healthcare, leveraging its impressive network of partners which includes the NHS, Bupa and Vitality. Neil shares how the idea of the company was born and the process to transform it into reality, as well as his thoughts on the current market landscape.
1. How was the idea for Skin Analytics conceived? What inspired you?
The idea for Skin Analytics came about as a flash of inspiration during a ‘what’s the next big thing’ brainstorm amongst friends. We had started talking about the explosion of consumer technology through smartphones and realised that healthcare should capitalise on this trend. Given that skin cancer is primarily visually assessed, it seemed that the field of computer vision was perfectly positioned to solve the global problem of specialist access.
I knew that this company was what I wanted to dedicate myself to, the essence behind the idea went hand in hand with my key drivers in life. The main being, like a lot of people, I’ve always felt the need to leave the world a better place than I found it and reducing cancer deaths through early diagnosis is an amazing way to do this. Secondly, it’s obviously a complex problem – from technical to clinical and regulatory challenges, there are just so many facets to tackle. Trying to solve so many different issues at once creates a motivating dynamism, constantly working towards such an important cause.
2. How has teledermatology and the role of AI changed and disrupted the oncology sector?
We see our AI-based services as providing a future-proof, alternative path rather than disrupting the oncology sector. Covid certainly disrupted cancer care and especially dermatology as, in many instances, the early symptoms are difficult to identify, let alone when the checks can’t happen in-person. We’ve estimated there are a lot of undiagnosed cancers in the community and I know our clinical colleagues are working incredibly hard to fix that.
AI has massive potential to augment healthcare. Though there are elements of patient pathway redesign that have had a dramatic effect on how people access care, healthcare is ultimately built on collaborating with people. The reality is that one in five clinical interactions involve the skin, and we’re chronically understaffed in primary care and in dermatology. At the end of the day the only way we can deliver better care around skin cancer is to adopt AI. It is our only option: AI offers a solution to the problem of increasing mortality rates.
3. What were the key moments of your investment experience? Were there any setbacks and, if so, how did you overcome them?
Out of the many milestones, one that stands out is when the Technology Strategy Board (now known as Innovate UK) awarded us a SMART grant to develop our idea, pending finding matched funding. That proved to be the catalyst for investors to back us and was key to launching the whole project. Those first investors – most of which have gone on to invest more since, and one of which who has contributed to every single round – we owe everything to. Their commitment to an idea, and not much else, showed they truly believed in the positive impact Skin Analytics could have on the community. To date, we have identified thousands of cancers and that feels amazing – but it all started with a few dodgy looking slides (in 4:3 ratio!).
4. Tell us about the role Spex Capital played in your investment journey. How did it help Skin Analytics grow and how did the company benefit from its counsel?
I have a great relationship with Claudio, the founder and CEO of Spex, and we often chat about the challenges we face and how to transform them into opportunities we can take advantage of. Investments often create intense relationships, but what I value most about Claudio and Spex is the trust that the relationship is built on. It has always felt very easy to open a dialogue and find solutions in tough times and, over the years, their guidance and support has proved invaluable.
5. How has the digital health landscape changed since Skin Analytics’ founding in 2012? How have you adapted to these changes?
Back when we began, it was the mobile health landscape. The name was a consequence of the world adapting to having unlimited information at your fingertips. We made three big bets back then. Retrospectively, they might seem obvious, but they were ground-breaking at the time and now constitute the foundation of our current business.
The first was not restricting ourselves to the definition of an app. My colleagues know how important it is for me to explain how we are so much more. The main difference was that we were building a clinical service, and how we delivered it just wasn’t as important as the ability to make clinical decisions using AI.
The second was that, precisely because of that premise, we needed to gather clinical evidence. We published the first powered prospective study in 2019. The conversation, though, started in 2013 with Helen, our current Research Director. It took six years to set up the research project, fund it, analyse the results and publish it. It’s a testament to Helen that the study and its conclusions remain relevant today, despite the study design starting almost a decade ago. Though it is now much more common practice, legitimate research backing projects was not considered essential back in the early days of digital health when the clinical world was being ‘disintermediated’.
Finally, we embraced regulation head on. The prevailing advice at the time was to move as quickly as possible but we still decided to hire a full-time regulatory expert and built a quality management system capable of exceeding ISO13485 requirements. We did the same for information security and secured ISO27001.This culminated in being awarded the first and only Class IIa regulatory clearance in the UK for our medical device, as well as securing a spot on the FDA’s Breakthrough Device programme.
6. Tell us about your partnerships with the NHS, Vitality and Bupa: how did they come into being and how did they change the company?
You never forget your first customer. I still clearly remember the first skin cancer assessment kit we sent out for Vitality Health. Keith Klintworth at Vitality took a leap of faith betting on us, and we strive to make sure his members thank him for it every day.
We established a few partnerships within the NHS network after that point, but these centred around dermatologists reporting for us, not our AI, which hadn’t been cleared for use yet. Our first AI deployment was with University Hospitals Birmingham in April 2020. Nick Barlow was tasked by the excellent leadership there to find digital solutions that were ready to deploy. Six weeks after the meeting, we launched the first service together. It was the product of the collaboration of so many talented people working incredibly hard to ensure that the pathway delivered for patients through the pandemic, even when the dermatology team was reassigned to help with the developing crisis as the wards were filling with covid patients.
The progression of our relationship with Bupa was similar: we launched the solution in an incredibly short space of time to help their members access skin cancer services during the pandemic. The success we’ve had together can be attributed to incredible people on both sides. Patients really value the service – we have a net promoter score in the high 80s.
Once we had proven we could deliver, more opportunities started to appear. These partnerships are the product of valuable contributions from countless people, and they’re built to change long held patient pathways. The end result is that we can make a difference in the delivery of dermatology and makes all the work worth it.
7. How have the past six months shaped the current landscape? What does the future hold for digital healthcare? How will Skin Analytics adjust and exploit these changes?
The last six months haven’t been great for start-ups. The rules which we have been building our businesses on have changed overnight. But we see it as an opportunity. As a company that bet on building incredibly strong foundations, we see this new world as one we’re well positioned to thrive in.
What’s more, we’re starting to see support for what we’re doing and more people believe in our project. We have now helped over 40,000 NHS patients, identified thousands of cancers and our last performance review showed we’re operating in the high 90s in terms of accuracy. The incredibly high number is not only testament to the amazing work we’ve managed to achieve, but it also allows us to build new skin cancer pathways that can dramatically change the way we find and treat skin cancer in the near future. In 2012, our vision of a world where no one dies of skin cancer seemed so far-fetched it would be practically impossible to achieve. Though we are still far from reaching that dream, the progress we’ve made shows that it may not be as impossible as we thought.
8. What advice can you give to fledgling health-tech start-ups trying to grow through investments?
The same advice I’d give any start-up: build a resilient company. Resilience is the only characteristic I’ve seen in every successful founder I’ve ever met. Take your time, build strong foundations, and your future self will thank you for making their life easier. We start-up founders have chosen a path with lots of challenges, but nothing else compares to achieving your vision. Surround yourself with a great support network and keep going.
About Skin Analytics
Skin Analytics specialises in cancer screening for melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers. The company invested heavily in technology with the potential to disrupt the process of diagnosis and management of skin cancer and has validated their proprietary technology in two large studies.
Founded in 2012 Skin Analytics is a research-led company committed to helping more people to survive skin cancer. Skin Analytics have provided teledermatology services for over 5 years and their AI-supported teledermatology service since April 2020. They have spent considerable time working with General Practitioners in Primary Care, Dermatologists, Hospital Providers and leading researchers to ensure that their services and DERM have real clinical utility.
Neil Daly, Founder & CEO
Neil started Skin Analytics in 2012, having worked extensively in mobile innovation and strategy consulting for a number of years. He holds a BSc in Physics from the University of Western Australia and an Executive MBA from London Business School.