How to save lives and get ahead with big data and AI

As Challenge Lead at the Amsterdam Economic Board, Jeroen Maas is focused on developing the region’s AI health ecosystem into a world-class hub by connecting the most relevant local players in academia, industry and government. The challenges remain daunting, yet Maas maintains his enthusiasm and sense of humour. In this interview he discusses the sector – and what data science and AI innovators will need to break out of the pack in the coming years.

The Amsterdam Area is aiming to extend the average healthy lifespan of citizens by two years by 2025 – the 750th anniversary of the founding of the city. That’s quite the birthday present. Can you explain how big data and AI are going to play a role in this – and the role of yourself and the Amsterdam Economic Board?

“For us, it all started five years ago, when the Amsterdam Economic Board decided to focus on health and began identifying our region’s strengths. We found several powerhouses: one in AI and the other in data science – plus another in medical research and applications. This was at the time Google was promising contact lenses that could measure insulin levels – which incidentally never made it to market. But as a result, every self-respecting country was jumping on data and health. And we saw that the Amsterdam region had lots of opportunities.”

“The white coats and the black turtlenecks were simply not talking to each other, and they really needed to talk.”

“But we also identified a few problems: people didn’t really know each other. The white coats and the black turtlenecks were simply not talking, and they really needed to talk. Many of these small pilots were failing and none were scaling – when perhaps they would have progressed faster or survived if people reached out to others working on similar things who were, literally, 100 meters down the road.

And then there was also another large challenge that remains to this day: a lack of a connected data infrastructure. And you need this to use artificial intelligence to develop new things…”

Many places are hyping themselves as an AI hub. What sets Amsterdam above the hype?

“Well, we’re already applying it on a clinical level – that’s how we rise above the hype. AI and data science have already been applied to improve youth health, in the better treatment of sepsis in intensive care, in limiting post-operation infections… Our main challenge now is in scaling these projects up.”

While challenges remain, the local ecosystem is developing rapidly. What developments are getting you excited right now – making you optimistic the Board can achieve its 2025 ambition?

“Many things! On the 25th of September we’re signing a memorandum of understanding between top sector players and knowledge institutions, along with the municipality and the Board, that we will all work together on the execution of the Life Sciences & Health Amsterdam Action Plan – which includes working on this infrastructure. This will help stimulate the collaboration between academia and industry. So that’s great: That the board directors are saying “We want to be part of this. We want our people to be part of this.” And our regional AI-health ecosystem is growing faster than ever. All the players and different factors needed to bring innovation from research to reality are now present. The rapidly growing interest in health and AI is also reflected in the increasing number of meetings on the topic.”

Plus, we have several projects on the go that should open massive amounts of patient data. But yes, a few obstacles remain…”

Read the complete interview here on our Insights portal.

Interview & copy: Edenfrost, Steve Korver