CTO Sessions: William Jones, Sano Genetics

Most people don't know that I… “…started my professional career in marketing at Google.”

Headshot of William Jones, CTO at Sano Genetics
Sano Genetics

Name: William Jones

Company: Sano Genetics

Job title: CTO

Date started current role: February 2017

Location: Cambridge UK

William Jones is co-founder of healthtech startup Sano Genetics, a medical research technology startup he founded with two fellow genomics students who he met while studying as a PhD student at the University of Cambridge. The trio observed how hard it was to find the right data sets for their research, to recruit people for trials, and to keep them engaged – problems that cause lengthy delays in drug development and massive costs to pharmaceutical and biotech companies – so they worked on a business plan that would solve these problems. Sano Genetics recently raised an $11million Series A funding round led by MMC Ventures.

What was your first job? My parents were academic researchers in plant genetics, so I spent many teenage summers in academic research labs.

Did you always want to work in IT? I first realised that I wanted to work in software because I wanted a way to create utility from ideas that I was learning about in mathematics and programming these ideas into computers seemed to be a really good way of creating useful things. I started learning Python in 2010 before the practice of teaching yourself how to code was popular, so I had to make do with extremely low-quality YouTube videos, and a lot of trial-and-error. The quality of content for newcomers is much better these days.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I have an undergraduate degree in Mathematics from University College London, an MPhil in Computer Science and Machine Learning from the University of Cambridge and half a PhD in Genomics from the University of Cambridge, Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute (I left to start Sano Genetics)!

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. Plenty of detours! My first professional experience was as a product marketing intern at Google in 2013. That experience motivated me to become more technical in software and data, and led me to furious self-teaching in machine learning and data science during my Masters. I realised there that biomedical informatics was a rising wave, and invested my time into this burgeoning industry in 2016. My experiences of the systemic challenges in the industry inspired me to build early versions of the Sano technology myself, and ultimately quit academic research entirely and commit to building the our technology full-time as a startup company.

What type of CTO are you? Pragmatic, driven, results-oriented, bias-for-action, and a leader not a manager.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? Recently, OpenAI launched an AI system known as DALLE-2, which is a profound improvement to the task of AI systems generating images using input from natural language. Video generation will be next, followed by immersive VR.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? None that I think are totally overhyped – all will have their uses eventually. There are some technologies like quantum computing that have remained in the research phase for decades now without bearing fruit in the form of products and services, but I’m hesitant to call those overhyped as progress in this field continues. Blockchain technologies have regularly been overhyped and misapplied recently but I am confident that it will find some crucial use cases that embed itself within our society in the near future in the form of currencies, protocols and utility tokens.

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? Within the past 12 months, we have launched a new infrastructure-as-a-service (IAAS) product line. This is currently used to create fantastic digital experiences for the research participants of some of the largest bioresources in the world. The reception from enterprise customers has been very strong and momentum is high – we can’t build features or hire people fast enough to keep up with demand.

Are you leading a digital transformation? If so, does it emphasise customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency? If both, how do you balance the two? We need to balance both considerations. We are making medical research better for patients while also running an operationally lean organisation and paying lots of attention to our unit economics.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? Running medical research studies within reasonable time-frames.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? We are quick to adopt practices and methodologies that give a clear advantage, and we are wary of technologies that claim to give advantages but are actually just hype.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? Not at the moment.

What makes an effective tech strategy? To me, it's the planning application of a particular technology within an industry that results in a long term advantage for the company.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? To me, the CTO is the responsible individual for the set of technologies that the company uses to create a compelling product or service. Since the technologies that underpin products and services created by companies are so different, the specific role of the CTO is hugely diverse. There will always be new and interesting technologies that companies use to create amazing products in the future, and the role of future CTO will always adapt to those technologies.

What has been your greatest career achievement? Getting our startup to where it is today.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? On the one hand I knew that I wasn’t suited to academic research before I started my PhD program and so it was perhaps ill-advised to pursue this path but, on the other hand, it was during this time that I built early versions of our product, and met my co-founders with whom I started Sano Genetics.

What are you reading now? Deep Nutrition by Dr. Cate Shanahan and Hold On to Your Kids by Dr. Gabor Maté & Dr. Gordon Neufeld

Most people don't know that I… started my professional career in marketing at Google. Completely different to where I am now, but it helped me figure out what I didn't want to be doing.

In my spare time, I like to…exercise and socialise.

Ask me to do anything but… interior design!