PathXL: A local leader

Published Friday, 13 April 2012
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Des Speed is a highly regarded local software entrepreneur who, after leading Lagan Technologies to a successful exit, returned back to these shores from the US to start all over again.

This time with a small software start-up located in the NI Science Park in Titanic Quarter.

I tracked Des down to see what made him throw his hat in the ring once again.

First of all I asked Des to summarise in a few sentences what PathXL is?
PathXL, formerly i-Path, was created in 2005 as a spin-out from Queens University Belfast (QUB) by Professor Peter Hamilton and Dr Jim Diamond, and is a pioneer in the use of web-based solutions for Digital Pathology. PathXL software is used in leading institutions all over the world in the research, education and clinical sectors.

And pardon my ignorance, but in layman's terms what is "Pathology"?
In simple terms pathology is the science of finding out what is wrong with somebody, how severe it is and what are the best courses of treatment. One of the biggest areas for Pathology is, of course, the treatment of cancer and even though we are making huge progress, fighting cancer has been described as chipping away at a huge rock with a tiny chisel. PathXL is all about making this chisel more powerful and allowing as many people as possible to be chipping away with their tiny chisels all at the same time!

That's helpful and it's interesting that you describe the product as a collaboration tool - why is collaboration so central to PathXL?
Collaboration in its many forms is at the very heart of pathology - let me give you a few simple examples. We all know the importance of getting a second opinion. Without digital pathology pathologists have to prepare and package up tissue slides and send them off to colleagues for review.

There are obvious problems around this - the sheer workload in packaging samples up, the time lag involved in getting the responses back and the risks of lost and damaged slides. Also when it is done this way the number of second opinions that can be sought are limited by the number of physical slides which can be sent out. Now using a digital pathology solution like PathXL a pathologist can send off a detailed digital image (typically 20 Gigabytes) instantly to as many colleagues as they want for second opinions. This leads to quicker responses and a much wider spectrum of second opinions which obviously can lead to a better informed diagnosis.

This is just one form of digital pathology collaboration albeit quite simple. At the other end of the spectrum we have the way clinicians in radiology, pathology, surgery and other disciplines have to work together as cross-functional teams particularly in complex cancer cases. Without digital pathology a pathologist would have to bring along a written report often with only limited images. With digital pathology the pathologist can run the meeting - over the web if necessary - with all images available for analysis in real-time by the whole team no matter where they are as long as they have access to an internet browser. So better diagnoses can be reached more quickly which means treatment plans can start quicker which can improve the chance of successful treatments in many of these cases. It is also much better use of the clinician's time!

Your examples have all been around cancer - is this a particular interest for PathXL?
Yes that's really important. If you remember I mentioned that PathXL was originally a spin-out from Queens University Belfast (QUB). QUB hosts the world-renowned Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology (CCRCB) with 300 researchers. PathXL has access to all the IP and expertise that has been developed in the CCRCB over many years. Also because of our special relationship with QUB we are also able to work very closely with the university research specialists in pattern recognition as applied to Pathology.

So PathXL is not just about collaboration - what is the significance of pattern recognition?
That's where our simulation products come in. It has been said that being an airline pilot is hours of boredom punctuated by moments of terror. Well, being a pathologist is about reviewing huge volumes of normal data punctuated with small amounts of abnormal data which need to be spotted quickly and reliably. PathXL uses intelligent reasoning algorithms to alert the pathologist to possible patterns of abnormality such as "Biomarkers" - the detection of which indicate optimum treatment paths for a patient.

The simulation product takes us into a third key pathology market sector for PathXL (in addition to Clinical and Research) - Education. Here PathXL is used to train pathologists in recognising conditions by presenting them with real data and automatically checking their answers with the expert answers stored in the system. In fact the simulation product does not just check the answers but also the reasoning so that they don't reach the right answer using the wrong logic!

Are there any PathXL success stories can you share?
Yes, of course. We were delighted to recently acquire several high-profile research clients, including the Oxford Biomedical Research Centre at the John Radcliffe and Royal Liverpool Hospital. Our new Biobank management application, first installed at the Northern Ireland Biobank for cancer research, is now being used for Digital Pathology plug-ins at Wales Cancer Bank, Imperial College London and the Chernobyl Tissue Bank. We also have a number of high profile educational customers for undergraduate and postgraduate teaching including The Pathological Society of Great Britain and Ireland, The London Deanery network of hospitals, Thames and Medway Pathology Network, Liverpool University Hospital, Astra Zeneca, Queen's University Belfast, Giessen University Germany, and more recently the University of Copenhagen and the UK Police forensic pathology service.

That's impressive but I guess there's a lot of competition in the Digital Pathology space - what makes PathXL unique?
We have already touched on some of the differentiators such as our ability to support collaborative workflows rather than being just point solutions and our unique relationship with Queens University - we have strong ties to research teams at CCRCB, and access to a team of advisors which includes experienced pathologists, scientists, medical informaticians and software developers.
There are a couple of other things which make PathXL unique.

Firstly, most of our competitors' software is locked in to specific hardware systems whereas PathXL is cross-platform - this is very attractive in terms of costs and avoidance of lock-in for many customers. Secondly the PathXL platform has been built from the ground-up as a web-based system which does not need specialised hardware just a web-browser. Many of our competitors have bolted on web-based facilities to their systems but they are essentially desktop-based systems with web interfaces which mean that you don't always have access to the entire product's functionality when you come in over the web.

So what are your priorities for the next 12 months?
This year we plan to expand more proactively into continental Europe and one of the ways we plan to do that is via strategic partners. The ideal partners for PathXL are organisations who currently sell products and services to pathology labs but lack a Digital Pathology offering.

On the Product Development side we have recently launched our new Clinical Workflow product, and have a Pattern Recognition search tool coming out of our collaborative work with QUB which we are very excited about and are currently in discussions with potential Beta-test customers. We want to become famous for automated cancer recognition software.

Final question Des: you have already been very successful as an entrepreneur - why risk it all again and why PathXL?
Actually that's two questions Ken. Let me answer the second one first "why PathXL?" I was attracted by the unique opportunity to be part of a company which can make a really serious contribution to the fight against cancer - how many CEOs can say that?
In terms of why am I doing the entrepreneurial thing again- that's a harder one! I guess it's a bit of an addiction for me now and to be honest having done it before gives you a more philosophical perspective on the highs and the lows of these kinds of ventures. I have learned from hard experience that things are usually never as bad as they seem in the tough times and never as good as they seem when all is going swimmingly well!

Additional material on PathXL including key facts, contact points, screenshots, videos and web links is available at and

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Comments Comments
Ken Magee in NI wrote (1,020 days ago):
It's fantastic to see Belfast companies develop as global players. It is a testament to the talented local workforce and to the vision of entrepreneurs like Des.
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Ken  Thompson
Ken Thompson

Ken Thompson (aka The Bumble Bee) writes about collaboration and new technologies.

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