Greg Dickens joined Cambridge-based innovation consultancy Innovia Technology as an intern immediately after gaining his veterinary degree in 2010. Ten years on, he is still at Innovia, where he is now an experienced innovation consultant and strategy adviser.
I’ve been taking things apart and putting them back together for as long as I can remember. I’m interested in fixing systems, and the more complicated the system, the more fun it is to fix. That’s what attracted me to veterinary science in the first place – animals are incredibly complicated systems. I joined Innovia straight from vet school because I needed a style of working that wasn’t available in a veterinary job at that time. I was training with the Great Britain national cycling squad and needed a role that would let me be flexible around the hours I needed to do on the bike. I was the first large-scale life scientist (i.e. not a biochemist) that Innovia employed, and we now have three vets and a couple of medics on the team.
How could new technology help the veterinary profession better serve the needs of animal health and welfare?
My primary passion in innovation is finding ways to meet needs using new technology, be they clinical needs or consumer needs. New technology can help us meet these needs in a more efficient, less risky, less damaging way than old technology. For example, you can detect lameness in a horse by recording the sound of its hoof beats. All you need is a microphone and some pretty good software, and you can pick up signs of lameness much more quickly than any clinical examination. You can do the same with sheep using an accelerometer on a collar. As soon as you have acceleration data, you can tell whether it’s lame or not – It’s even been shown to work in sheep that are lying down. Monitoring animals is a need that will be much easier to meet with new technology.
But smart surgery and smart diagnostics are going to be big, too. Smart diagnostics is all about new ways to gather and assess data and new ways to make decisions based on that data. There will be some automation in this, using things like trend tracking software that will flag a problem if the readings are changing in a particular direction. As for smart surgery, there are many possibilities along a spectrum, from technology to guide or track a surgeon and alert them if they make a mistake, all the way to fully automated technology that completes elements of surgery under just the watchful eye of a human surgeon. There are pros and cons to each.
It’s also worth noting that the functionality of our smartphones is tremendously underused. There’s huge potential for much better automated data gathering via smartphones, and also for guiding owners to use their phone to gather data that could help vets reach a diagnosis. The things you could do with a good smartphone are amazing.
What would you say to vets who are perhaps a bit anxious about the impact technology could have on their professional lives?
Technology is not something that will magically cure all of your problems, nor is it something that will destroy your job and practice. Technology is very much just a better tool – and any change to your business will be based on how well you use that better tool. It’s not actually that scary, but I think all vets should be thinking carefully about it.
Take telemedicine, for example. This technology hasn’t changed the value of your opinion, and it hasn’t changed what you do with data, how you make diagnoses, what the right treatments are. All it has done is change the boundaries of your practice – the physical walls of a practice have become much less relevant.
What advice would you give to someone who is keen to encourage an innovation culture/mindset in their workplace?
Two things – first, always start with a need. If you don’t identify a clear need, all you’ll have is a group of people coming up with lots of different ideas that can’t be compared relative to one another. No one knows which is the most valuable at that point in time, so nothing gets done because no one knows what should be done. Frame your needs clearly, and then you can begin the innovation process.
Second, on another level, do practices really need to be innovative in the traditional sense of the word? There’s a tendency to think of innovation as inventing a completely new way of doing something in order to unlock value. Practices don’t need to do this. They have the opportunity to look around and cherry-pick the very best things that are working for others – other practices, other businesses, other professions. Using concepts that are tested and proven to solve your need is a form of innovation.
But the other thing to say is that the veterinary process is an innovation process. Taking a history, doing a full clinical examination, coming up with a diagnosis and looking for treatments is exactly the same as the innovation process for a business.
Why is it important for vets to be proactive about innovation?
I feel very strongly that vets have to be proactive about innovation. Just because you are doing the best job you have ever done, doesn’t mean you are doing the best job you could do.
And from a business point of view, you must keep evolving and innovating. It’s the same as for living organisms – if you stop evolving and stop innovating, you’ll get out-competed and die. It’s completely impossible for a business to survive without updating itself and its services.
What are you most proud of and why?
Professionally, I’m proud of the fact that I’ve helped demonstrate the value of life scientists, especially vets, in innovation. Innovia initially rejected my application – they only wanted to hire physicists and engineers. I persuaded them that veterinary science was engineering for living systems, and they employed me. That was 10 years ago, and since then I’ve helped three vets within Innovia, and more vets in other companies, understand the cross-industry value of their degrees.
On a personal level, last year I raised £8,000 for insect conservation doing a sponsored challenge. I wanted to highlight the impact of neonicotinoid pesticide use on bees: a tiny amount of neonicotinoid doesn’t kill a bee, but it causes it to forget its way home, so it just flies and flies until it drops from exhaustion. I wanted to raise awareness of that plight and raise money for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Buglife. I managed to stay on the move continuously for 68 hours before I passed out!