Blockchain: how Spiritus digital tech is providing solutions in the physical world

By Scottish Development International (www.sdi.co.uk)

That’s the sound of the men and women working on blockchain. Can you hear it? It’s striking a universal chord as distributed ledger technology (DLT) from Scotland. And, whether it’s music to your ears, or something you want to hear more about, you’re probably thinking bitcoin and how the cryptocurrency is disrupting an already disrupted financial sector. 

Yet here in Scotland, a small and symphonic team at Spiritus Partners is taking concepts most commonly-connected with digital finance and cryptography. They’re using them to develop software and analytics so its clients in sectors like healthcare, life sciences and energy can better protect lives and the environment in their daily operations and facilities. Digital technologies are used to solve problems in the physical world. And that needs a bit of explaining.

So what is blockchain? Are you sitting comfortably?

Blockchain may be understood as a shared, distributed ledger to record transactions between parties, not just financial, but virtually anything of value.  Two parties assign cryptographic keys to a transaction, broadcasted to a distributed network of nodes, which agree the transaction is valid through a consensus mechanism. Once a transaction is valid, a new block may be created. The block, which includes a hash or cryptographic seal, is added to the prior block in the chain – hence the term blockchain. Shared ledger is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible to change so offers traceability, verifiability, authenticity and auditability far beyond distributed databases.

Properly designed and implemented, these attributes allow parties to reduce or eliminate costly, inefficient reconciliations across disparate systems and cut the time required to agree and complete transactions.

This technology is perhaps best known to record cryptocurrency transactions. However, Spiritus, from its Edinburgh base in Scotland, is using this same technology to help businesses, government agencies and the third sector achieve higher standards of safety, security and compliance. So far, it has focussed on three sectors: healthcare, life sciences and energy.

Blockchain for healthcare, life sciences and energy sectors in Scotland

Spiritus first arrived in Scotland in 2017 and quickly recruited a small team of talented software developers and business professionals to drive forward its venture. Susan and Bob lead the team. Partners in life as well as in the business, they bring complementary skills – Susan with the business background and Bob with the technical knowledge and experience.

Susan reels off a list of problems in maintaining critical assets and facilities: “The volume and complexity of assets, changes in location and ownership, fragmented information siloes, reliance on 3rd parties to perform maintenance and repairs, budget constraints, and slow recall cycles.  All can make it difficult to ensure needed service actions have been taken timely and effectively throughout an asset’s operating life. 

“These are some of the challenges we’re looking to address through a permissioned blockchain registry and robust data analytics.  Together these should improve transparency and verifiability that assets and equipment are safe and in good order or that wastes have been handled efficiently and safely.

In hospitals, this could mean recording corrective actions and repairs for defective infusion pumps.  Our technology could help ensure such service actions are performed timely, adequately and effectively by a clinical engineer who is properly certified and authorised to conduct such repairs.  The service record maintained on the system links the asset with the actor’s profile and specific artefacts and attestations associated with the work. “

Blockchain using video or laser scanning

An energy sector use case might involve inspection, testing and activities based on artefacts gathered by unmanned, remotely-controlled vehicles (aerial or subsea). Video or laser scanning may detect asset integrity issues for topside platforms or subsea infrastructure. 

In this case, the inspection artefacts may be supplemented by engineering diagrams or images enhanced through machine learning algorithms.  All could be recorded, time-stamped and associated with the inspector’s assessment, referencing defined operating standards and health, safety and environmental requirements.  

In both cases, assurance with regards to safety, security and compliance dramatically improves traceability, verifiability and auditability across a variety of players in an industry ecosystem. 

Wisdom from experience and youthful energy 

These are complex ideas to get your head around, but Susan is well-qualified to know how organisations struggle to manage risks when delivering their services, with 30 years of experience working in executive roles on Wall Street and elsewhere. As Head of Risk for a leading service provider to global wealth firms and money managers, her concerns about cybersecurity risks and operational resilience made her explore blockchain’s disruptive potential across industry sectors in 2014.

Bob’s team of developers is using blockchain/DLT to build capabilities that support businesses and organisations in maintaining their assets and equipment. In particular, this is when relying on third parties for everything from routine maintenance and repair to inspection and testing, decommissioning, disposal, and recycling or reuse.  

His 30 years of experience in the world of IT – IBM, CSC, KPMG - has focused on big data, analytics and enterprise transformation. He says there are advantages in being “long-in-the-tooth” when launching a new venture. “Our years of experience mean we’re not fazed by a bit of bureaucracy – we’ve seen all of that before and know that it’s just a case of staying focused.  

Younger entrepreneurs might go with the ‘build fast and expect it to break often’ mentality, but we are committed to producing tools that are truly enterprise-ready. At the moment we are working on the foundations of our product. We won’t rush this phase. We believe in being thorough, getting things right and modelling the principles of privacy, cybersecurity, resilience and safety that are fundamental to our company. 

“On the other hand, we are using the most modern approaches in technology and development methodologies. We have the most current technology stack and use the latest agile development methods. Our forward thinking is attractive to talented young graduates. Hopefully, the result is a winning combination of wisdom from experience coupled with youthful energy.”

“Spiritus means breath or spirit.  We believe what we are doing can have a positive impact, improving lives and protecting the environment here in Scotland and across the world.”

Susan Ramonat