NHS England - Transformation Directorate

The AI skunkworks team is opening a new Dragon’s Den-style opportunity

Our AI Lab skunkworks is looking to find, fund and resource the most promising AI experimentation in the health and care ecosystem. Giuseppe Sollazzo, Head of NHS AI Lab’s skunkworks, urges NHS colleagues to consider their workplace problems and apply to pitch them in a Dragon’s Den-style event.

Photo credit: @mariogogh/Unsplash

If you’re not familiar with the concept of skunkworks, you’re in for a treat if you look up its history on Wikipedia. Making a long story short, the original Skunk Works was a Lockheed Aerospace function assigned the task of rapid innovation, and responsible for a number of highly successful aircrafts. And so it was that Skunk Works became the noun ‘skunkworks’: “a group within an organization given a high degree of autonomy and unhampered by bureaucracy, with the task of working on advanced or secret projects.” 

The problem of finding problems

I like to describe the AI skunkworks team as the ‘corporate geeks’ who will bring rapid innovation to health and care settings, applying AI technologies to problems that are genuine system issues that haven’t, historically, been a good match for non-AI solutions. Given the nature of the work, we need to be able to select real-life problems, and rapidly apply AI tech to try and solve them. 

It is in our DNA to celebrate success but we must also recognise failure as a good learning experience. The skunkworks will be successful if we manage to increase the healthcare system’s ability to understand problems that are good matches for AI solutions, and improve commissioners’ confidence in selecting them.

No pressure, right? We have already started testing out the ways in which our team can benefit the national healthcare ecosystem. But to make sure we get this right, we are looking to source a good range of projects that we can take on in partnership with ‘real people’ who work in the system. 

Skunkworks Dragons’ Den-style event

To do this, we’re launching a new round of the AI Skunkworks Dragons’ Den-style pitching opportunity! In its previous incarnation, the open forum event crowdsourced its first projects from within NHSX, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and NHS England and Improvement (NHSE/I). This allowed the team to take problems from scratch to a proof of concept by applying some of the most innovative AI ideas. 

Over last summer, teams were invited to explore their AI ideas with subject matter experts, and ideas were scoped and refined. The first ‘winner’ was Data Lens, a project that looked at how to bring different datasets together using Natural Language Processing (NLP) and other AI approaches, and the approach is proving successful. You can read more about Data Lens here.

Who can apply

We are inviting applications from health and care colleagues in arm’s length bodies (ALBs), public sector healthcare organisations and NHS Trusts. If you’re not sure if you meet this criteria, do get in touch by emailing aiskunkworks@nhsx.nhs.uk.

Ideally, you will have a ‘problem’ that could be more than just local. Perhaps issues where time-consuming human resource could be alleviated, incompatible information could be more easily shared or where a prediction tool could resolve patient or work flow. 

If successful, we will fund and resource the project. You’ll need to commit a product owner who understands the problem and can help navigate the levers required within the organisation.

From us, you will get a delivery team to work together on a 12-week project.

Pitch event details

How can you apply to the Dragons’ Den-style problem-pitching event? The rules are simple:

  • Email us at aiskunkworks@nhsx.nhs.uk for an application form.
  • Submit the application by 20 March 2021. 
  • Be ready to attend on 1 April 2021.
  • The winner will be announced on 15 April 2021.
  • The project will run from April to August 2021.

You’ll need to come to us with a clearly defined problem statement or use case that meets a user need within the health and care system. This doesn’t have to be a clinical/diagnostic problem: in fact, we are very interested in projects that have an impact on operational processes and infrastructure (something often referred to as “fixing the plumbing”).

Can you get access to the data needed for the problem? You’ll need to consider whether AI or data-driven technology could be a good candidate for the problem statement, or if there is potential in rethinking how the system delivers something.

We are keen that each project will contribute to the wider knowledge base of AI in health and care. This means you must commit to working in the open. We will be publishing blog posts and sharing information about the project as widely as possible, and the source code of data pipelines and the model (not the data itself, of course) will be released under an open licence.

Do you have an idea of what success looks like, and how it might be measured? For example, if the problem identified is that different NHS trusts cannot share certain information, how will we measure the impact of enabling this? If it’s long waiting times, how will we measure any reduction, and further impacts such as saving costs? There will need to be data available to form a baseline that can be monitored to assess the impact of your project.

The Dragons’ Den-style event is just one of the pillars that form the foundation of the AI Skunkworks team. We will be announcing more initiatives in the next few months as we’re busy recruiting a multidisciplinary team of data scientists, agile project officers, and other roles. 

If you want to learn more about the AI Skunkworks team, visit our NHS AI Lab Skunkworks webpage and join our AI Virtual Hub on the FutureNHS platform where you can engage with members of the AI Skunkworks team.