Avril Chester - from interim to entrepreneur
Interim Partners, speaks with Avril Chester on her transition from interim manager to entrepreneur.
Why have you decided to make this transition from interim manager to entrepreneur?
I moved from the relative safety of the world of Interim and scarily took my first step as an entrepreneur at the beginning of January 2018.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer on 1st December 2015. It was during this time I recognised the need for Cancer Central. I was frustrated at not being able to find all the information regarding the entire range of care, products and services available, particularly those accessible to me locally. Surely, I just use Google? How wrong was I. Standard search engines provide unfiltered, unverified results. If I was struggling as a technologist, then how were others going to find what they need? For something this important, trusted information should be easily accessible to people of different technical literacy, age, physical and mental ability, in various emotional states.
This idea stayed with me as I went back to work through Interim Partners in a new contract as IT Director for Scope. During those 16 months I explored the concept further by speaking with trusted sources, meeting new contacts and working on a business model in evenings and weekends. When I had achieved my goals at Scope, I knew I needed to give this start-up a go, to help others.
What were the drivers?
There are many businesses, charities and communities delivering great service, support and products for those affected by cancer. The challenge is that they are difficult to find in times of need. It can be frustrating to find the help required because people do not know what is available, or what to search for. It is also hard to know if information found is accurate and up to date. This is all during a time of great challenge and trying to understand jargon used by medical professionals. Some excellent leading UK charities provide useful information about cancers, complementing the NHS by providing detail on treatments and side effects. However, there is no central source providing access to the entire range of care, products and services available from the private, public and Not for Profit sector thus preventing individuals from taking control.
What does Cancer Central do?
Cancer Central will organise all the relevant information and make it as easy to search as possible. Consequently, it will be the ultimate information source for cancer sufferers, friends and family.
- It will be the go to website for all things cancer from point of diagnosis, treatment and beyond.
- It will signpost to products, services, support and research.
- It will have the ability for searches to be carried out using postcode.
- It will have reviews written by customers and / or health professionals.
- It will have additional filters such as age, cancer type and gender.
- It will have an intelligence engine driven by Artificial Intelligence to learn and provide more relevant information.
- It will create an anonymous data set which will assist the Public, Private and Healthcare Sector to identify gaps in provision based on location.
Companies, charities or independents will be categorized in the following three classifications: Product, Service, Support.
What would you say were the biggest challenges for a start-up such as Cancer Central?
As per a chapter heading in the book I am writing, the F-word, namely Funding and Finance. A number of revenue streams have been identified and the target is for Cancer Central to be self-sustaining once it reaches 100,000 users (this includes parents, children, other family members, friends and colleagues). However how do I get there? Building a technology platform like this has no ROI but at the end of the day the only thing we have in common is our health. Cancer Central could have the ability to help millions of people.
I’ve had incredible support to date, in particular with my Hackathon on 18th April. The judging panel consisted of the CIO Francis Crick Institute, Editor in Chief Computer Weekly, Digital & Social Transformation NHS Horizons, European Healthcare Development Director IBM and Director TechFINIUM. It is with huge thanks to the kind generosity of Skills Matter, Code Node, eSynergy Solutions and Sales Filter, that we had an incredible location, food & drink, prizes plus live streaming on YouTube and Facebook. IBM Watson Artificial Intelligence (AI) kindly offered to partner with the Java Developers and provide AI specialists on the day, plus the code from the Hackathon will be developed into a basic website (my MVP – Minimum Viable Product) for launch by TechFINIUM, astonishing and amazing.
Everything to date has been achieved through the commitment and good will of others, I am in amazement that I will have a basic live site to start collecting data and essential user feedback. However, funding is needed to turn this incredible first step into the vision and organisation that I wish Cancer Central to become. I am currently seeking sponsorship and funding.
What gets you out of bed in the morning?
My passion for Cancer Central is not like anything I’ve experienced before. I know there is a need for it and I know as a community we can achieve it, I have an inner faith and belief that if I keep knocking on doors the right ones will eventually open. I enjoy being an Interim, the variety, the freedom and being in charge of your career is something that drew me from the permanent side. We all run our own companies and typically P&Ls in the departments we run via our contracts. Yet I must confess, taking that leap from Interim to entrepreneur is exhilarating. It’s another level of accountability, excitement and the unknown. I am learning every day.
I am also motivated by an inner passion and excitement with driving true innovation. Cancer Central will be the next generation search. Gone are the days of form filling websites. The new world will be driven from conversations, explorations and machine learning, making sense of all the information in the online world then presenting it back to you, personalised for your needs. It will be using approaches that are only now coming of age, partnering with industry giants, as well as the sharpest minds in high tech start-ups.
The organisation will also be led by the community, for the cancer community. Not only will the direction of the company and its roadmap be influenced online by you, we will operate with experts across different industries from each field coming together to form one community team. We will reinvent the social enterprise and Not for Profit space. This means the Cancer Central team will consist of 1-year secondments from organisations showcasing their talent for the greater good and working with others for the millions affected by cancer. To continue to stay fresh with innovation, the community team will renew itself each year, led and guided by me, my Non-Executive Board and Advisory Panel.
If you could change anything about your strategy to date, what would it be?
Being braver earlier. What I mean by that is - it is very scary letting go of your idea and sharing, allowing your network to help. There is naturally a fear of someone running off with your idea and you have to get past that. Since I’ve opened up and shared, the support has been astonishing. The assistance in validating concepts, processes, company name is all part of the journey and perhaps I would be further ahead if I had shared earlier. Then again, I wasn’t ready. It had to happen in my own time.
What does the future look like for Cancer Central?
I have a big roadmap in mind both in terms of website features and strategic direction. I am terrifically excited about what we can learn from the anonymised data to help improve gaps in provision within a location. For example, there could be thousands of the same service in Yorkshire but hardly any in Cornwall. In addition to the Artificial Intelligence and engagement on the site (based on permission levels), we could explore the opportunity in future of augmented reality, or perhaps escapism into a beach scene via Virtual Reality (VR), or even VR counselling. Ultimately the platform will be built with the big picture in mind. My ‘aim for the moon’ objective is: once we have developed the right working model for those affected by cancer, to expand the site to cover other illnesses, such as Dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Stroke etc.
Cancer Central is currently being formed as a Community Interest Company (CIC) - a social enterprise that is bound by regulations to ensure that assets are retained within the company and any profits are used for public good. Being a social enterprise, it will be answerable to the CIC regulator.
Tell me something about you that I don’t already know, Avril!
I used to own a classic Mini sidewalk, beautiful car. Turquoise with tartan interior and red seat belts. I met my parents at Mini events regularly (as they had a Mini too) and spent my weekends changing items on the car, typically from what was already there to the shiny chrome alternative. I even went on a car mechanics short course. While new tech in cars is a welcome improvement, I do miss the old engines.
Avril is writing a book about her experiences from interim executive to entrepreneur. She hopes to inspire and aid others wishing to take the leap.