- Drug discovery startup BenevolentAI has appointed former Facebook executive, ex-government minister, and peer Joanna Shields as its chief executive.
- Shields is one of the highest-profile women in UK technology, but has been under the radar since stepping down as the British government’s first internet safety minister last year.
- BenevolentAI uses artificial intelligence to help discover new drugs to treat diseases such as Parkinson’s.
- The company recently raised $US115 million from existing backers, including Woodford Investment Management, at a valuation of $US2 billion.
Former Facebook and Google executive Joanna Shields has become CEO of BenevolentAI, a London drug discovery startup valued at $US2 billion (£1.5 billion).
Shields told Business Insider that she will temporarily relinquish her duties as a peer in the House of Lords to take on the position. It means she will no longer attend sittings and can’t claim a daily allowance of up to £300 ($US408).
Being a Conservative peer enabled Shields to participate in key votes on British government policy. Up until June last year,she also served in the government as the UK’s first internet safety minister.
Stepping back from her public duties was something she had to “think about,” she told Business Insider.
“This is one of those really important times when expertise in the area of artificial intelligence and machine learning, applied to human health, is a very important area, for the country,” Shields explained.
“To go out and do this and invest my time 100% knowing one day I will go back into the Lords in an active status is why that institution is so powerful.”
BenevolentAI applies artificial intelligence to drug discovery which, in time, it hopes could speed up the process for finding new drugs to treat diseases such as Parkinson’s.
It is headquartered in London, and recently raised $US115 million at a $US2 billion valuation from existing backers, including Woodford Investment Management. This makes it one of the UK’s few unicorn startups, with a valuation of more than $US1 billion.
Shields will be tasked with the day-to-day running of the business while its founder, Kenneth Mulvany focuses on generating new ideas for the company.
“He has got 1,000 ideas in his head,” BenevolentAI spokesman James Chandler said of Mulvany. “He needed someone that could help him build the business – that’s why Joanna is here. He will be pursuing all those ideas in his head, and Joanna has the daunting task of making those ideas happen.”
Shields reiterated comments made by Mulvany last year that there is no intention to sell the company. “We’re here to build a purposeful tech company,” she said.
Her appointment comes five months after Facebook poached Jerome Pesenti, formerly CEO of BenevolentAI’s technology division, as its head of AI.
Joanna Shields was a government minister for internet safety – but is reluctant to criticise Facebook and Google
Despite being one of the most high-profile figures in UK tech, Shields has been somewhat off the radar since stepping down as the UK government’s first minister for internet safety last year.
She said working for the government had not “been in the life plan” but said creating policy around how technology can aid counter-terrorism and issues such as fake news had been a unique opportunity.
“I was just starting to poke my head out, and think about what to do next,” she said. “I left the government before the last election [in June 2017]. I stayed on doing some projects … after Christmas, I flew to California and started talking to people, then suddenly I was in this process and here I am.”
Shields’ last project for the government was a February report on how easy it is to exploit children online, produced by an organisation she founded called WeProtect. She remains involved with WeProtect but no longer influences policy.
She was formerly a managing director at Google, then vice president of EMEA for Facebook. Some of her policy-making will have impacted both her former employers, both of which have been strongly criticised by MPs for not doing enough to tackle hate speech online or to protect children. Facebook is also recovering from the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Shields was reluctant to criticise either firm, but pointed to her record of calling out Silicon Valley tech giants while in government.
“I would draw your attention to three years of speeches I wrote imploring the industry to do more,” she said. “I would say in some respects, we knew it was going to happen … I can only say that it’s a missed opportunity to be more responsible.”
Shields said her return to the private sector was fuelled by a desire to help answer the big questions facing humanity. While Google and Facebook are among the world’s most powerful companies today, Shields worked at both firms while they were still in the relatively early stages, she said.
“At the time, they were exploring big questions that needed solving in terms of applying tech,” she said. “When I was at Google, one of the things I was doing was licensing all this information and ingesting it to make the search index rich and robust.”
BenevolentAI, she said, similarly wants to build out its own “knowledge graph” to make it easier to discover new compounds that can be the foundations of cutting-edge new drugs.
Chandler added that the startup is looking to expand “aggressively” in the US, after it hired a longtime Google scientist and opened a New York office last year.
The company is headquartered in Kings Cross, nicknamed London’s “knowledge sector” thanks to the presence of AI firms like DeepMind, and has grown from around 70 employees last year to 165 currently.
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