Founders of machine learning company acquired by Twitter win Silver Medals

Dr Zehan Wang and Rob Bishop
Two UK engineers who developed a machine learning technology now used by Twitter to help deliver high quality media to millions of users worldwide are to receive a Royal Academy of Engineering Silver Medal in recognition of their work.

Rob Bishop and Dr Zehan Wang founded Magic Pony Technology in 2014, working together to develop a system that uses machine learning to enable more efficient delivery of images and videos on mobile devices. By optimising the technology for the computer hardware used by modern smartphones, the innovation enables high quality video streaming at reduced bandwidth – improving the quality of experience for mobile users who are accessing ever more media content. Magic Pony Technology was acquired by Twitter in 2016, with the engineers and their team joining its Cortex division of machine-learning researchers, with the potential to apply their expertise to future problems in delivering high quality media to increasing numbers of people.

The deep learning algorithms at the heart of the software predict what information has been lost in a compressed video, and can then reproduce it to reconstitute high quality footage even when the media has been transmitted at a low bit rate.

The machine learning models used in the technology have been trained using hundreds of thousands of pairs of test images – each featuring both an ideal and a corrupted version of the same scene. Using machine learning, the software learns a function that can recreate the ideal image from the corrupted version in each case, and can then be used to infer an ideal image in real world scenarios where only the corrupted image is available, such as when a low bit rate internet connection makes it impossible to transmit a full-resolution video. With the ability to generate a high quality image from incomplete data, it can deliver a seamless experience for users watching videos on Twitter or its Periscope streaming service.

Rob and Zehan will receive their Silver Medals at the Royal Academy of Engineering Awards Dinner at London’s Landmark hotel on 29 June. Established in 1994, the Silver Medal celebrates outstanding personal contributions to UK engineering that have resulted in successful market exploitation.

The pair met while taking part in Entrepreneur First, an investment programme for enterprising engineers and technologists, where they connected over a shared drive to solve a difficult but meaningful problem. Noting the exponential growth in the computing performance of mobile devices, despite users still suffering from having limited bandwidth, they spotted an opportunity to combine their expertise to address the problem of using this newly available computational capacity to improve the quality of compressed media content.

Rob, who gained a first class master’s degree in electronic engineering from Imperial College London, was formerly the first engineering employee at Raspberry Pi. In 2014 he joined Zehan to co-found Magic Pony Technology, acting as CEO, and now leads the Magic Pony team from Twitter’s San Francisco HQ. Commenting on the award, he said: “Receiving the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Silver Medal provides further validation that we achieved what we set out to do, which was to identify and work on a problem that was both technically challenging and commercially meaningful. We continue to be excited about the impact our work can have at Twitter.”

Before co-founding Magic Pony Technology as CTO, Zehan completed a PhD in visual information processing for medical image analysis at Imperial College London’s Department of Computing, and continues to be based in London, helping Twitter build a European artificial intelligence centre of excellence, acting as Engineering Manager and Technical Lead for the Magic Pony team. He commented: “It’s great to be recognised for our work with the Royal Academy of Engineering Silver Medal. When we set out to tackle these challenges we never thought we’d come this far in just two years, but it’s been a fantastic entrepreneurial experience.”

Commending the engineers for the award, Chris Mairs CBE FREng, co-founder of Metaswitch and Venture Partner at Entrepreneur First, said: “In the last 30 years I have been privileged to work with many hundreds of highly talented software engineers, and never in that time have I encountered a partnership that delivered the brilliant combination of insight and execution so ably demonstrated by Zehan and Rob, despite both being under 30 years old.

“They have created an astonishingly valuable business – rapidly achieving a reputation at the forefront of the industry. Not only have they achieved game-changing improvements in compressed video bandwidth usage and quality with some very innovative engineering, but they did so in the highly resource-constrained environment of smart phones. They are fully deserving of the Royal Academy of Engineering Silver Medal.”

Sniffing out disease: ‘Breath Biopsy’ pioneer wins Academy Silver Medal

Billy Boyle
Engineer Billy Boyle has a bold vision: to save 100,000 lives and also save $1.5 billion in healthcare costs. As CEO of the Cambridge-based company Owlstone Medical, he has invented a powerful new way to achieve this using a programmable ‘breathalyser’ for disease. The company’s ‘Breath Biopsy’ platform can collect a simple breath sample and detect volatile biomarkers for diseases, including cancer, on a patient’s breath.

Billy’s role in driving Owlstone Medical’s pioneering work will be recognised this week when he receives the Royal Academy of Engineering’s prestigious Silver Medal on Thursday 29 June at the Academy Awards dinner in London.

Initially developed for military applications, the Owlstone technology is a miniature chemical sensor on a silicon chip, based on a technique called Field Asymmetric Ion Mobility Spectrometry (FAIMS). While working as a researcher at the University of Cambridge, Billy developed the sensor with two colleagues and they entered their project in a 2004 Cambridge student business plan competition. They were runners-up in the competition but within six weeks had secured $2 million investment to spin out Owlstone as a company. In 2008, Owlstone was a finalist for the Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award for engineering innovation.

The last year has been transformational for the medical side of the company; having spun out from its parent company Owlstone Inc. in March 2016, Owlstone Medical has raised $23.5 million, including investment from Aviva Ventures, the venture capital arm of global insurance firm Aviva, validating the importance of the technology for the future development of healthcare. As CEO, Billy leads a team of 88 engineers and scientists  based on the Cambridge Science Park.

Owlstone Medical is running breath based clinical trials for early detection of lung and colorectal cancer, two of the most common and difficult to treat cancers. Half the population will get cancer at some point in their lives but early detection can dramatically improve survival rates. If detected early, over half of lung cancer patients and 93% of colon cancer patients can be cured with treatments that exist today.

Working with clinical and pharmaceutical partners, Billy has demonstrated the diagnostic power of FAIMS across a range of infectious and inflammatory diseases as well as different types of cancer. In 2015 he led a project that resulted in the LuCID trial, a 3,000 patient study looking to develop a cancer breathalyser for early stage lung cancer detection, supported by a £1.1 million NHS contract.

Owlstone Medical’s Breath Biopsy platform is highly sensitive and selective, and has the potential to revolutionise early detection and precision medicine where treatment can be tailored to the individual patient. With the world’s largest breath-based clinical trials, Billy and his team are pioneering the field of breath biomarkers, demonstrating how lives can be saved, patient outcomes improved and treatment costs reduced.

Billy Boyle says: “Every time you breathe out, there are thousands of chemicals on your breath; some are telltale markers of disease, which our microchip chemical sensor technology is able to detect. Our vision is to change the way we currently diagnose and monitor serious disease; we aim to become the global leader in non-invasive early detection and precision medicine for cancer, infectious disease and inflammatory disease.”

Professor Chris Toumazou FREng FRS, Regius Professor at Imperial College London, says: “This work is so pioneering that it was recently labelled as the next “unicorn” coming out of the global tech industry. Billy Boyle is an absolute entrepreneur, pioneer and inventor and through his own personal endeavours has encouraged major research in the field of cancer. Billy Boyle is one of the UK’s unrecognised stars. He has focused for years on deploying his technology, very successfully, in major hospitals and working with many companies and institutions. His amazing technology will save millions of lives in the next decade.”

Organ preservation and therapeutic ultrasound expert wins Academy Silver Medal

Professor Constantin Coussios
Cold storage of human organs for transplant could be a thing of the past thanks to the work of biomedical engineer Professor Constantin Coussios of the University of Oxford, who is to receive the Royal Academy of Engineering’s prestigious Silver Medal later this month for work including a ground-breaking method of preserving functioning organs at body temperature. He will receive the medal at the Academy Awards Dinner in London on Thursday 29 June.

Working closely with transplant surgeon Professor Peter Friend at the University of Oxford, Professor Coussios co-founded spin-out company OrganOx in 2008 to develop the technique into a medical device that could be manufactured and translated into clinical practice. The OrganOx metra® was first demonstrated in 2013 with the world’s first transplant of a human liver preserved at body temperature. It has now completed trials with over 200 transplant patients in 6 countries across 2 continents, demonstrating better organ utilization and improved transplant outcomes compared to conventional cold storage. The OrganOx metra® can store a functioning liver outside the body for up to 24 hours, greatly extending the time available to match a suitable donor with a patient who is waiting for a transplant. The system also monitors the organ while it preserves it, enabling surgeons to ensure it is functioning properly before transplanting it, essentially ‘test-driving’ the organ and reducing the risk of transplant failure.

OrganOx now employs some 20 people and the OrganOx metra® is already in use across the National Health Service, where it was used to perform over 10% of NHS liver transplants in 2016. It is now approved for use in Europe and is being used in hospitals in Germany, France, Spain and Belgium as well as the UK. The system is also in use in Canada and a major trial regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is ongoing to enable introduction of the technology in the United States.

The next stage of the work is to extend the principle of normothermic preservation – storing organs at body temperature -  to other organs, such as kidneys, and the team are aiming for a first-in-man transplant next year of a kidney preserved in this way. Professor Coussios says: “Kidney dialysis is very expensive - £18 thousand a year per patient – and it is a tough and restricting regime. A transplant operation costs £20-30 thousand pounds – but will free the patient from dialysis for at least ten years. If OrganOx can enable more kidney transplants to happen successfully, then we can make a real contribution to improving patients’ quality of life while reducing healthcare costs for the NHS.”

Christopher Watson, Professor of Transplantation at the University of Cambridge, says: "Organ preservation at body temperature is now a global phenomenon that is challenging and changing the face of liver transplantation - an area that has seen little technical innovation in 30 years. This success would not have been possible without a remarkable and longstanding collaboration between engineer and surgeon, with a focus on excellence in engineering and innovation."  

Professor Coussios’ drive to improve medical treatments does not stop at transplants – he and his research team are also pioneering a way of using tiny bubbles to help pump cancer drugs deeper into the tumours which they are designed to attack, maximising the drug’s effectiveness. He has formed another company to develop this technique: OxSonics, which today employs 14 people at the Oxford Science Park.

OxSonics works by injecting thousands of miniature bubbles into a patient’s bloodstream together with the cancer drug. Each tiny bubble is stabilised by a polymer cup until the bubbles and the drug molecules reach the tumour. Once there, the team use an ultrasound probe to make the nanobubbles vibrate – this produces a pumping action or convection that propels the cancer drug right into the tumour.

“Conventional cancer drug delivery requires a high dose to be effective, and typically less than 1% of it gets into the tumour itself, with most of it being deposited near blood vessels” says Professor Coussios. “Our technique enables up to a hundred times more of the drug to enter the tumour and to reach those cells that are far away from blood vessels. We therefore hope that it will enable better therapeutic outcomes, potentially using lower doses of cancer drugs.”

OxSonics is planning to start clinical trials with its SonoTran device next year – and the team are also looking at how this platform technology could be used to deliver other types of non-cancer drugs such as vaccines, cardiovascular drugs and gene therapies.

Silver surfer: DeepMind’s lead researcher wins Academy Award

Dr David Silver
One of the key engineering brains behind the phenomenally successful artificial intelligence company DeepMind is to receive a prestigious Silver Medal from the Royal Academy of Engineering this week. Dr David Silver, Principal Research Scientist at DeepMind, has changed the face of adaptive control through his ground-breaking research. David will receive his award on Thursday 29 June at the Academy Awards dinner in London.

After earning his BA and MA in computer science from Cambridge University, David co-founded Elixir Studios, a games company, with Demis Hassabis, now CEO of DeepMind – who received the Academy’s Silver Medal last year. At Elixir, David served as CTO and lead programmer for the PC strategy game Republic: The Revolution. He later returned to academia, studying for a PhD in reinforcement learning at the University of Alberta. There he played a vital role in the Monte-Carlo search revolution of computer Go, co-developing the first master-level 9x9 Go program.

After postdoctoral study at MIT, David became a Professor at University College London and in 2013 he joined DeepMind, where he established the company’s reinforcement learning group. David was one of the main inventors of the Deep Q-network algorithm and led a team of over 20 scientists and engineers to develop AlphaGo, the first computer program to be able to play the ancient Chinese game of Go at a professional level. AlphaGo famously defeated the Go world champion Lee Sedol in March 2016, in an event watched by 200 million viewers.

David also co-led DeepMind’s research on a deep reinforcement learning agent that managed to reach human level in a selection of over 50 Atari games, directly from raw pixel inputs. This was the first demonstration of an artificially intelligent agent that could learn from scratch without any handcrafting, to achieve high performance across a wide variety of challenging games.

Professor Richard Sutton, Director of the Reinforcement Learning and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the University of Alberta in Canada, supervised David’s PhD work. He says: “AlphaGo was a major engineering achievement and its repercussions are still being felt throughout the field of artificial intelligence. David Silver is clearly the engineer who was primarily, though far from solely, responsible for this. He has always been explicit that his interest in Go was a way to explore and test core ideas in artificial intelligence, in particular the interplay of search and learning.”

DeepMind CEO Demis Hassabis says: “David’s research focuses on deep reinforcement learning: programs that can learn for themselves to solve challenging problems, directly from raw inputs and with minimal prior knowledge. Thanks to his contribution, this field has emerged as one of the most promising areas of research for the development of artificial general intelligence, which is ultimately the holy grail of AI and computer science.”

Notes for editors

  1. Silver Medals. The Royal Academy of Engineering Silver Medal was established in 1994 to recognise an outstanding and demonstrated personal contribution to British engineering, which has resulted in successful market exploitation, by an engineer with less than 22 years in full time employment or equivalent on 1 January in the year of award and who will normally be Chartered. Up to four medals may be awarded in any one year.

    More information: Silver Medals
  2. Royal Academy of Engineering. As the UK’s national academy for engineering, we bring together the most successful and talented engineers for a shared purpose: to advance and promote excellence in engineering. We provide analysis and policy support to promote the UK’s role as a great place to do business. We take a lead on engineering education and we invest in the UK’s world-class research base to underpin innovation. We work to improve public awareness and understanding of engineering. We are a national academy with a global outlook.

    We have four strategic challenges:
    - Make the UK the leading nation for engineering innovation
    - Address the engineering skills crisis
    - Position engineering at the heart of society
    - Lead the profession

For more information please contact:

Jane Sutton at the Royal Academy of Engineering

T: 020 7766 0636
E: Jane Sutton