Think - AT LONDON BUSINESS SCHOOL

Unlocking the power of the crowd

When the pandemic struck, Namrata Lal MBA2015 was instrumental in refocusing DreamLab’s mission to help find a cure

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Namrata Lal gave birth to her first child in the middle of the UK’s coronavirus lockdown. She reflects: “Going to hospital, I felt like I was going into space, head-to-toe in masks and protective gear.” Now she is at home on maternity leave from her demanding job at Vodafone and experiencing the “very different emotional rollercoaster” of raising a baby during a pandemic.

At some point, once the new family routine settles down and Lal is getting a little more sleep, perhaps she will be able to look back and process the overwhelming achievement of converting what had been an innovative cancer research project into one focused on finding a cure for the novel Covid-19 coronavirus.

“I don’t think anyone could have foreseen the magnitude and scale of social and economic disruption as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak, not to mention the impact on human health and the pressure on our healthcare systems. I certainly couldn’t have contemplated it,” Lal says.

“I was very grateful to be able to focus on working on a solution – it allowed me to take my mind off the problem, as well as being able to be involved in addressing a big, global social challenge.”

“I was very grateful to be able to focus on working on a solution”

As head of Vodafone Ventures (the social enterprise arm of the telecom group) and global programme delivery for Vodafone Foundation, Lal is responsible for the global roll-out of DreamLab, a groundbreaking app that harnesses the collective computing power of smart phones to aid healthcare research.

When it was launched in 2017, the intention was to use the app to process research and data sets with regard to the effectiveness of cancer treatments, but once the coronavirus was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization earlier this year, it was agreed at Vodafone Foundation that DreamLab should pivot to focus on Covid-19.

Lal, a consultant at Bain & Company and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation before embarking on a London Business School MBA in 2013, explains: “There were many moving parts to this complex change of direction, not least finding the right research partner to work with – and we were so happy that we were able to partner with a premier institution like Imperial College London.

“The first phase in the project is identifying existing drugs and food-based molecules with anti-viral properties. Phase two will focus on optimising combinations of these drugs and food molecules for improved efficiency against coronavirus infections.

“The app uses artificial intelligence to crowdsource the idle processing power from all the smartphones that have it downloaded and activated to create a virtual supercomputer that is able to make millions of difficult calculations much, much more quickly than would otherwise be possible.

“The beauty of it is, this all happens when the smartphone owner is tucked up in bed sleeping. So, they give us six precious hours of their processing power and none of their private data – it’s completely secure – when they don’t need it. To illustrate how useful this could be, 100,000 DreamLab users activating the app for six hours every night for three months could help Imperial scientists achieve a year’s worth of research.”

As Lal points out, the pace of research is also critical: “Ultimately, given the capricious nature and infectious characteristics of Covid-19, speed to find effective treatment is of the essence.”

Launched at the beginning of April, DreamLab’s Corona-AI project is already live in 11 markets so far, with plans to launch it in more countries imminently. Coordinating this effort was no small feat, particularly as much of the world was under lockdown. From hypothesis to execution took a month – surely some sort of record in terms of launching a research project, with the sheer number of stakeholders involved as well as regulatory hurdles.

Transformative power

Lal says the project made her “personally very proud” of working for Vodafone. “Getting big corporate initiatives off the ground can sometimes be time-consuming and full of obstacles, as different teams have different priorities and timelines. But there was so much support for this project – from the developers right up to board level. It really felt like the entire company came together to get behind this.

“We are very hopeful that this project will unearth some interesting findings soon. Its transformative ability to tap into the processing power of the crowd has already achieved some success with cancer treatment research, including identifying the potential for some anti-diabetic drugs to be retargeted.”

While it’s fair to say that the Corona-AI project has been a focus for Lal, she has also been making sure that key Vodafone Foundation initiatives continue to operate effectively amid the pandemic. These include helping people affected by domestic violence, giving young refugees in Africa access to education through the Instant Network Schools programme in collaboration with UNHCR, and reducing maternal mortality rates in Africa (M-Mama).

“For many years, Vodafone Foundation has used technology to connect people suffering from domestic abuse with information and help,” Lal says. “Our Bright Sky app enables people who may be experiencing domestic abuse to find support near them and log photos and voice notes and write a journal as evidence, none of which will be stored in the phone itself. The app is disguised, thus protecting the victim from his/her perpetrator.

“Sadly, it has seen a more-than-40% increase in weekly downloads in the UK since the lockdown began. It is currently live in UK, Romania, the Czech Republic and the Republic of Ireland and we are working on launching it in other countries, too. We work with a government authority, like the police, as well as local NGO partners, taking into account social sensitivities and cultural nuances. The rise in domestic violence is a tragic side-effect of Covid-19 isolation.”

When Lal first joined Vodafone after graduating from LBS, it was to work on group-wide strategic initiatives and then to design and drive the digital transformation programme across the company.

“I knew then that digital was the future. You could see that by the way that communications were going, payments, buying behaviours, the way we were living our lives – it was heading online. But now that we have been forcibly pushed into an all-virtual environment,

it will be interesting to see how we find a balance between the convenience of technology and the fundamental need for human interaction.

“Vodafone’s position has always been to use technology for good, to improve people’s lives. That is what attracted me to Vodafone in the first place. That, and the diversity of the people in the company, which operates across geographies. It is similar to the diversity in the student community at LBS, which taught me so much about how to see things from other perspectives and the power of working with people from different career and cultural backgrounds.

“Working with people in a team with very different skillsets, it is incredible what can be achieved.”