Meet the Innovator applying medical thinking to travel

Maths whizz Chris Arthurs created computer simulations showing how human hearts respond to drug treatments, before applying his knowledge of algorithms to build a city navigation smartphone app. Now he is working with Connected Places Catapult to develop a digital twin to help shape highways of the future.

“Do the thing you struggle with the most, in order to grow the most,” remarks entrepreneur Chris Arthurs, the Vice President for Innovation at spatial computing technology company Hadean. “I studied pure mathematics precisely because it was really difficult, and switched to applied maths so I could create computational models with the aim of benefiting society.”

Earlier in his career, Chris built simulations showing the effect that medical drugs can have on cardiac response. Then, in his spare time, he developed an app based on his understanding of algorithms to allow friends travelling from different places to pinpoint the most convenient location to meet in central London.

He later joined Hadean which develops and orchestrates simulations for a variety of use cases, from ‘massively multiplayer online’ video games to complex ‘military theatres’ used for defence training.

Learnings from these multi-user platforms are now being applied to the world of transport planning. Last year Chris helped Hadean secure a grant from the Knowledge Transfer Partnership programme – delivered by Innovate UK – to work alongside Connected Places Catapult to build a traffic simulation digital twin. The project involves determining the best location for new charging infrastructure – including possible overhead power cables – for the benefit of heavy goods vehicles.

“Battery electric trucks could take power from pantographs over a section of motorway and leave the carriageway to make their local deliveries. The question is what impact this new infrastructure might have on traffic patterns.”

He adds that electric vehicle chargers powered by renewable energy sources might struggle to cope with high demand from hauliers during periods of insufficient sun or wind. “Imagine if we could use data to understand energy consumption, and provide economic incentives to freight drivers not to charge their lorries at certain times.”

Honing his mathematical skill

Chris Arthurs grew up in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, excelled at maths and science at school, and enjoyed watching Doctor Who and Star Trek: seeing “smart people solve big problems”. He enrolled on a four-year Integrated Masters course in mathematics at Warwick University, but had no idea where a future career would take him.

His focus switched from pure to applied maths; driven by a desire to use his skills for more practical applications. In his final year, Chris became fascinated by the Big Bang and built a simulation of how black holes behave.

He was encouraged by a fellow of The Royal Society to try his hand at PhD research, so went on to read computational biology at Oxford and worked for a cardiac modelling and simulation group based at St Thomas’ Hospital in London. “Our focus was on the electrical activity that goes into every heartbeat, and we built an accurate model that we could analyse to understand whether new drugs developed to treat disease might run the risk of stopping the heart from beating. My role was to create algorithms for running the model, which could explore the properties of the drugs.

“Our aim was to build better models of a heart, and create faster mathematical algorithms to reduce the time it takes to run a simulation.” After completing his PhD, he joined King’s College London as a research associate and later became a research fellow, developing models and simulations associated with preventing cardiovascular disease.

App helps friends meet more easily

It was during his medical work that Chris decided to apply his algorithm skills in a completely different way. “I had been staring at the Tube map, trying to work out where best to meet friends who were coming in from different parts of the capital, as we were not sure where to go. I thought there must be a solution to this problem.”

Chris did what he does best, and applied mathematical logic to come up with an idea that he developed into a smartphone app called Meetie London. Its premise is simple: friends join a closed group and enter their start point. The app comes up with what it thinks is the fairest place to meet, based on the likely travel time for each person using the London Underground.

Chris says the app is capable of calculating the most favourable meeting pace based on as many as 100 rail journeys. It featured in TimeOut magazine as well as City AM and the London Evening Standard, and enjoyed an “explosion of interest” about six years ago.

Taking a leap into a new area of work

Three years ago, Chris made the switch from biomedical research to spatial technology by joining Hadean. “One of main reasons I joined was to learn something completely new,” he explains. “I had lots of technical skills, but was aware I had spent a lot of time working on academic projects. To reach the next level of my career, I felt that I needed to join the commercial sector.”

During the interview process for a job as a research engineer, Chris thought to himself: “there’s so much here that’s new to me, and you seem to be very smart people I can learn from.”

His role involved developing technical products for clients; conducting market research, building hypotheses around future market trends, and helping to build 3D virtual world prototypes.

“Personally, I have a very strong bias towards poking holes in ideas – including my own. If you give me a concept, I will test it to exhaustion until it breaks, in order to learn where the barriers are to something being successful. Working this way has helped me to come up with new concepts and drive them forward.”

The approach seems to have served him well, as he was promoted after six months to his current role as Vice President of Innovation in 2021.

“Fundamentally I am a sceptical person and don’t believe anything is going to work, until I’ve poked around to see where the holes are,” he adds. “I get a little uncomfortable with taking risks sometimes, but the company has helped me to take them. It’s good to take a run at something new, but if you fall over that’s ok; you pick yourself up and go again.”

Talking shop with a useful community

Chris is grateful for the support received over the last year to take forward the electric highways project. “Connected Places Catapult has done a really good job of pulling together the digital twin community,” he says. “Last summer’s Connected Digital Twin Summit showcased great applications from across the country. It was the best event of its kind I have ever attended.

“With events such as these, you have some great conversations and others that might not go anywhere, but that doesn’t matter. By being there, you effectively buy yourself a pile of lottery tickets: one interaction might turn out to be a winner.”

He says computer simulations such as those he builds depend on artificial intelligence, which “absorb data to make predictions” and adds that transport systems today increasingly demonstrate intelligence, such as with smart street signs, traffic lights and cameras.

“The way we are interacting with computers is forever changing, and the revolution in how users interact with systems has only just begun.”

Find out more about the work of the Digital Twin Hub, convened by Connected Places Catapult.