We talked to Ayesha Shah on how PredictX predicts analytics to transform the way businesses make decisions and this is what she had to say.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Ayesha Shah: We are so lucky that all within our circle are healthy. This year has taught all of us never to take our health for granted. My husband and I started our company PredictX together and have built the company from scratch, going through good and bad times. In some ways, the pandemic has accelerated the transformations that the business needs that otherwise might have taken years. Being bold, strong, and taking risks is more manageable when one’s back is against the wall. We felt terrible and didn’t know if we could make it, but we adopted an attitude of embracing all the challenges that the horrific events offered up. Right now, we are hugely looking forward to a few days off at year-end where we can pat the pause button of work, watch some films and play fun (non-virtual) games. But being founders meant you are never truly off. We don’t use the “Out of Office” feature of the email system.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded PredictX?
Ayesha Shah: I graduated from UCL with a degree in physics. I was lucky in that my quantitative skills were sought after in Finance. I naturally gravitated to the most technical area, derivatives trading, eventually rising to Head of Interest Rate Derivatives at Nomura International. I left investment banking to devote myself to service. I joined the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), established after the Berlin Wall fall to promote lending to help build up the former Commonwealth of Independent States. As Treasurer, I was responsible for financial strategy and operations, including long-term funding, asset-liability management, and the investment and trading of EUR11 billion. In Finance, we had the luxury of leveraging technology to understand data and make decisions. I saw that the industry had to become more data-driven.
In 2012, my husband and I founded PredictX. Soon the wave of “Big Data” ensued, which helped us with customer adoption. We invested heavily in AI/Machine Learning. At first, the market didn’t know what this was. But about five years ago, the market caught up, and now customers really “get” what we are doing, and they are excited by it. Building the company with no external investors has been a challenge. Still, by necessity, we developed good habits – most notably the highly efficient use of capital and knowing how to invest it within the business to get the most significant returns. We were fortunate that our technology solved real business problems (our clients paid us for them!). We were able to win customers straight away, which helped us stay independent of any external investors. We are an oddity. A profitable, growing technology company founded in the UK with no venture capital, instead boot-strapped from reinvested earnings. One venture capitalist told us that he knows no other companies in the AI space without venture capital.
Our vision is to transform the way companies make decisions by leveraging AI. Today PredictX helps the public sector and blue-chip institutions to make decisions better by deploying Machine Learning techniques to automate routine decision making and focus on strategic issues. Our work has helped primary care, and social care practitioners understand their population and tailor care packages to better look after vulnerable people for the NHS.
How does PredictX innovate?
Ayesha Shah: At PredictX, we have a strong focus on research and development focused on AI/Machine Learning. Around 40% of our annual turnover is invested in our R&D. We keep developing technologies that enable solutions to real-world problems. Our software platform technology is first developed to deliver data science applications to end-users rather than provide data scientists tools. I believe so much in our unique contributions – we’ve been able to patent some of our innovation. One day all businesses will be using Machine Learning to operate more efficiently and effectively.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Ayesha Shah: COVID-19 has allowed us to “throw out the playbook” and pivot. For a while, our business has been serving the care and health sector through R&D initiatives to use AI and data science solutions to solve true health and care challenges. As we all know, COVID-19 has been a massive strain on the NHS. We, along with others, felt the obligation to apply our technology to help. This is why our company has developed new software solutions which help health and social care providers to work in a more integrated way. With our data analysis, partnering with local councils and commissioning groups means they can continuously see the outcomes of the health and social care they provide to their populations and make changes proactively. We bring visibility to many outcomes, including COVID-19 patients and our partners provide the correct care – keeping more people independent in their homes and away from hospitals. We are working closely with Wolverhampton and other badly hit areas in the Midlands to cope with the pressures of COVID-19.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Ayesha Shah: The most important lesson I have learned through the turbulence is the value of communication. Even though we are working remotely, we make sure to schedule time with people to discuss our challenges. If we communicate well, anything can be managed. Lockdown situations are the strongest reminder that people matter most: our colleagues, partners, and customers. People are the most important, not an organization. Social Distancing is not the term that the government should have adopted. I wish they had used Physical Distancing instead because we need more Social Un-distancing now than ever.
My biggest concern is our people’s mental health and well-being, many of whom are in their twenties, some away from their families. With offices and colleagues in Spain, the US, UK, and Poland, and without the usual regular travel to and fro between offices, the challenge of maintaining our common culture has been super hard. Our company always provided as much of a social network and hub as a business one. I’ve been so gratified that our people have maintained their close ties with cross-geography/department virtual games, lunches, and coffees. They’ve also initiated learning groups. We’re fortunate that we’ve not had to furlough anyone, and our people turnover has been less than 4% for 2020. We hope this means we are doing something right. Some of the habits (such as fun games) will stay with us even after the lockdown ends, and we go back to our weekly drinks and quarterly new-experience outings.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Ayesha Shah: I am a great believer in practicing mindfulness to deal with stress. It only takes a few minutes of every day, but the rewards are immense. I also try to carve out a bit of time for my close and broader family – feeding my soul. My personal mum’s network is of invaluable support.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Ayesha Shah: Few were able to build the technology to provide the same quality data analytics level. As more companies realize the value of data, many more companies have joined the ’cause’ for better data. Now we have too many competitors to list. Most of these are large US companies.
Our platform uses next-generation technology that is future-fit, and most haven’t even imagined yet. We also provide a vital element of service to our customers. We treat them as partners in our innovation rather than clients. I believe this makes us stand out.
As a BAME woman, what are some of the additional challenges you’ve faced starting a company in the UK?
Ayesha Shah: The technology sector is notorious for being male-dominated. A cursory glance at the companies’ boards shows they are invariably littered with men of a certain profile. Explicitly and implicitly, BAME women must work harder and overcome more enormous obstacles to create companies. We’ve had very little support from the government. I’ve experienced not winning contracts for which we were the most qualified and at the best price because they were awarded to large US companies. The UK can do more to support better UK tech companies, especially those founded by BAME women. I’d be jumping for joy with just a level playing field to start with, let alone being shown some support.
Your final thoughts?
Ayesha Shah: The pandemic has proven that the key to survival, let alone success, is to be flexible and adapt to change. Some say that 2020 in business has been like experiencing Darwin’s theory of survival by evolution. We should all take these lessons and embed openness and flexibility into our everyday corporate culture, evolving. This is a key focus for me in 2021.
Stress in the ecosystem requires faster evolution, pushing innovation even further. We often think of innovation as a quantum jump like transforming aspects of the world. Still, in reality, it is merely placing a ‘problem’ into an entirely different context and coming up with a solution that doesn’t occur to others. This is PredictX’s ethos and ‘secret sauce.’
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