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Business spotlight: healthcare app aids COVID understanding

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 01 Jul 2020

Stephen Guerin, finance director of health science company ZOE, tells ICAEW Insights how the firm’s technology-led research has aided the understanding of COVID-19 and about the company’s wider ambitions to tackle the obesity epidemic.

Using a free app developed by ZOE, the COVID Symptom Study combines daily feedback from more than 3.8 million participants and machine learning algorithms to predict high-risk areas in the UK and speed of spread. The research is the largest of its kind in the world and resulted in the firm highlighting the loss of taste or smell as a symptom of COVID-19 to the public before any official recognition.

Led by Dr Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, the study is also being used to better understand the disease. ZOE is using the findings to develop a digital diagnostic to predict COVID-19 without a test.

Tackling the obesity epidemic

The COVID project wasn’t part of ZOE’s plan when the company was created by Spector and technologists Jonathan Wolf and George Hadjigeorgiou in 2017. The commercial opportunity they had identified hinged on combining large-scale scientific studies with artificial intelligence to predict how individuals would respond to what they eat based on their biology, unique gut microbes and the likelihood of inflammation. Based on the results of home tests, ZOE devises personalized nutrition plans designed to improve gut health, avoid dietary inflammation, achieve a healthy weight and potentially reduce the risk of more serious health issues.

As the UK’s obesity epidemic gives it the rather dubious accolade of being the most obese nation in Western Europe, according to the OECD, Guerin is confident that the company’s technology-oriented approach to managing health through nutrition will strike a chord with consumers. “One-third of adults in the UK are obese and 73% of ITU admissions for COVID have been obese. What we eat is incredibly important.”

Expansion plans

The company is backed with VC funding and a planned commercial launch in the US is slated for July, with the UK to follow early next year. For Guerin, the excitement of a start-up was a huge motivator behind his decision to join the company, following a varied career across both practice and industry including a decade with Deloitte.

With responsibility for HR as well as the financial aspect of the business, Guerin says the transition to home working for the company’s small UK-based team has not been without its challenges. His own experience of a nine-month career break to stay at home and focus on his children – then one and three – has made him more than sympathetic to the challenges of juggling work with homeschooling.

“We have told our people we will remain remote until October at the earliest and are assessing what model we might return to.” The trick is to set expectations while being flexible about when staff work, he says. “We went remote before it was enforced and were proactive in establishing how we support each other.”

Guerin says enforced remote working presents challenges to any business in start-up mode, where spontaneous interactions, collaboration and “water cooler moments” are critical to driving innovation. The company has turned to technology to plug communication gaps and help engender a sense of community using apps including Donut to randomly pair up employees for virtual coffees and Slack for messaging, alongside copious amounts of Zoom.

In anticipation of ZOE’s commercial launches, Guerin’s focus is on communicating with investors and making sure the business is flexible and scalable enough to capitalise on opportunities. “Almost everything we are doing outside the COVID Symptom Study is either geared towards product-market fit or ensuring our team is supported during the pandemic. What we have achieved as a team in this situation has been incredible and sets us up well for the future.”