A new series of monthly talks at the University of Leeds, Inspiring Innovation features guest speakers presenting ideas and experiences along their entrepreneurial journey. Devised by the Innovation and Business Development team, the series aims to inspire our university colleagues who are considering their own commercial ventures. A varied list of speakers is scheduled – with a focus on academics-turned-entrepreneurs - each at different stages along the pathway of ideas to incorporation. They’ll provide insight and advice and will be available to answer your questions. Each speaker will talk for around 30 minutes, and refreshments are provided. Attendance is free to members of the University and we look forward to welcoming you. Below you can find articles on past speakers and a link to their slides or their recorded talk. You will also find our schedule of planned events.
Prof John Terry (Neuronostics) "From Blackboard to Bedside: The role of dynamic network models in epilepsy diagnosis and prognosis" Held on 18 May 2022
Professor John Terry, Co-Founder, Neuronostics: “Are you in it for the long haul?”
Around 65 million people worldwide – 1% of the entire population – have epilepsy, a condition driven by unusual activity in the brain that results in recurrent and incapacitating seizures. Yet diagnosis is still far from straightforward. While EEGs and MRI scans are an important part of the process, those tests aren’t definitive and often show no unusual activity, meaning clinicians will usually need to ‘watch and wait’ for the patient to suffer additional seizures, before confirming diagnosis and starting treatment.
Professor John Terry is co-founder of the company Neuronostics, which has successfully addressed the issue of epilepsy diagnosis through advanced mathematical modelling. Neuronostics’s biomarker software – ‘BioEP’- can read a short routine EEG scan of any patient, and predict how likely it is that that patient will go on to suffer seizures. Its reports are similar in accuracy to results produced after a full clinical diagnostic pathway process, which usually takes well over a year.
Neuronostics was founded in 2018 and Professor Terry took us through the company’s ‘from blackboard to bedside’ journey, explaining how he and co-founder Dr Wessel Woldman analysed a huge database of EEG records from people with and without epilepsy. From that, they created a sophisticated computer model that built a network of interactions between the signals produced by the electrodes used in EEG to measure brain activity. The model could distinguish between healthy, and seizure-like, background brain states even if no seizure is shown. The resulting ‘BioEP’ software generates a risk score from a routine EEG, not only assisting with an epilepsy diagnosis, but also giving an insight into the patient’s prognosis for the first time.
Professor Terry described the group’s path to commercialisation. Initial support from Innovate UK’s iCURE (Innovation to Commercialisation of University Research) programme, along with a follow-up grant of £500,000, and financial support from the University of Exeter (Professor Terry’s former institution), was invaluable, enabling the ideas to develop fullly and other investors to emerge.
Professor Terry had several excellent pieces of direct advice for would-be innovators and entrepreneurs at universities, including the following:
- Are you in it for the long haul?
It can be many years before the necessary technology is validated and the company can start. Neuronostics’s patent was filed in 2012; the company was only spun out in 2018, and a national retrospective trial is only starting this year, 2022.
- Does your institution have the right structures in place to incentivise founders?
You will have to raise significant amounts of money externally and your share structure will be scrutinised, so if your institution’s rules include taking a large stake in the company that may be a factor. Check your institution’s rules so you know the position.
- Beware of experts bearing gifts!
Suppliers may be recommended to you by your institution or partners, but always check that due diligence has been carried out. Many people will offer advice: but be sceptical of experts and follow your instincts – if someone doesn’t feel right, there is probably a reason!
- Imperfect action beats perfect inaction
Academics tend to have an academic approach; everything has to be done perfectly. However in a commercial environment, life is fast-paced, and you have to make changes at the speed that is necessary.
- It’s down to you and your team
It can be a very different experience to the support provided by a big institution; if anything happens in a spin out, you have to figure out answers yourself and with your team. There are advantages and disadvantages; be prepared!
For these and many other insights, you can see the slides from Professor Terry’s talk here and you can contact him directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Prof Ben Varcoe (School of Physics and Astronomy) “Commercialising Quantum Technologies” and Dr David McKee (Slingshot Simulations) “Slingshot to Innovation” Held on 27 June 2022
Recordings of this session can be viewed here.
Professor Ben Varcoe, Co-Founder, Creavo: “Develop a solution to a problem, rather than a product”
Professor Varcoe is the founder of Creavo Medical Technologies, which has developed and brought to market a portable magnetocardiography scanner that quickly assesses whether patients with chest pain have a serious heart problem.
An expert in quantum technologies, he chose to focus his talk on two aspects of commercialisation: how industry partners can help academics to fund their ‘impossible’ research; and why academics should think about finding an answer to a problem, rather than developing a product in isolation.
To illustrate his first point, Professor Varcoe recalled an early project in his career while at Sussex University, where he found that the technology he needed to do the research was missing. He approached a young company looking for a way to showcase its own technology and they agreed to take on all R&D work involved in building the device. The resulting product became the company’s biggest seller and a springboard for the field of quantum technologies – and allowed Professor Varcoe to get on with his own research.
Professor Varcoe used the example of his own company, Creavo, to demonstrate his second point.The road to his groundbreaking invention began with a chance conversation with a young cardiology doctor in a waiting room. He then took time to identify the real problem – how to speedily and accurately assess many patients in the situation of a a crowded hospital waiting room, without needing to move them elsewhere to be scanned. This led him to developing a portable device that could assess patients lying on a gantry or trolley. By giving a readable magnetocardiography image, doctors could immediately work out whether the patient should stay for further tests or be safely discharged.
Along the way Professor Varcoe learned many insights into the commercialisation process, including:
Commercialisation is difficult, but things are improving at universities. There are now more funds in place to help and universities are much savvier about this. A good knowledge transfer team can really help.
Innovation in the field of healthcare is especially hard – double your estimate of costs, then double it again! Accessing a hospital costs a lot of money – even for device testing – and staff and patients cost more. Clinical trials can be very expensive.
Seek advice from people who have been there before. Have a clear vision, but be prepared to change on the basis of evidence.
Professor Varcoe did highlight barriers to commercialisation for university academics. In particular, while publishing research and disseminating results is essential for career progression in academia, this runs against the secrecy needed for patents and building a business plan. And while the impact from an invention can ultimately be submitted to REF, it may take many years before a finalised idea has impact.
He believes the support of university departments and management – even if that is a ‘leap of faith’ to support a new idea – is essential if universities are to play their part in fostering and encouraging innovation.
Dr David McKee – Founder, CEO and CTO, Slingshot Simulations
“We’re focusing on reducing time for decisions by 80%”
Slingshot Simulations was spun out from the University of Leeds in 2019 by Dr David McKee, following his realisation that businesses could benefit enormously from using highly sophisticated data simulation technology – if it could be made more accessible.
The company’s technology platform, Compass: Engine, harnesses data analytics and knowledge graph technology to model complex systems, simplify decisions and mitigate risk. It does this by analysing every column and cell in a field of data, creating a graph that can link all the data fields to each other, and which can be viewed via a dashboard for the end user so that the organisation can find exactly the decision-making information it needs.
This is enabling a whole generation of business owners to operate advanced data science techniques and ultimately understand and optimise their current business. While some business leaders understand and enjoy using technology, it also suits those who want the simplest dashboard possible due to its no-code approach. It allows insights to be uncovered 80% faster with the automated data linking functions.
Organisations can also use Slingshot’s platform for ‘digital twinning’ creating a digital environment that reflects on, mirrors, and evolves ahead of the physical environment. For example, it could be to assess the optimal design and location of a warehouse to function efficiently, cut down on errors, meet supply chain demands and minimise fuel costs.
In his talk, David painted a picture of the enormous volumes of data that exist in the world, rising all the time. The technical term for this is ‘Dark Data’, data which is unused or unknown, not used to derive insights or decision making. It’s predicted that by 2025, the world will be producing 175 zetabytes of data a year; a zettabyte is 10 to the 21 bits. The spinning of physical hard drive storage leads to the burning of high amounts of carbon dioxide. The global carbon footprint for data centres presently accounts for more than 2% of global carbon emissions; and by 2040 that is predicted to have risen to more than 14%.
By giving organisations access to a high-quality application that can handle large volumes of data and enabling quick transfers and sharing of information, Slingshot Simulations is helping to reduce the problem of a mass volume of data, sustainably. Slingshot allows organisations to take control of the growing amounts of Dark Data, and use that data to its full potential.
David has this key advice for academic entrepreneurs:
- Slingshot Simulations is, in part, named after the biblical story of David vs. Goliath, in which a tiny slingshot defeats a giant. Don’t shy away from a challenge, no matter how big it seems!
- It’s so important to be open to new ideas when running a business. Interview every single candidate for jobs and branch out from traditional backgrounds for a diverse team. Slingshot includes team members with expertise in Environmental Science, Art and Design and Neuroscience – and this was a deliberate decision to move away from a typical code-heavy, deep tech team.
- Aim high! David’s vision for the legacy of Slingshot is a positive environmental impact, as well as the cool tech element. Leaving a positive legacy is really significant.
Compass Engine software video: https://youtu.be/-lVFEgSZj00
Dr Yoselin Benitez Alfonso (School of Biology) “From Plant Walls to Biotechnological and Biomaterial Applications” and Prof Mike Ries (School of Physics and Astronomy) “Materials from Nature” Held on 18 July 2022
Recordings of this session can be viewed here.
Dr Yoselin Benitez Alfonso: “Involving industry from the start is critical”
Dr Yoselin Benitez Alfonso’s research focuses on plant cell walls; in particular the channels in the walls that connect plant cells and facilitate transport of molecules such as proteins, hormones and other signals across the walls. But a collaboration with an industry partner has changed the course of her work.
Dr Benitez Alfonso was introduced to the company Futamura, a Japanese-owned global provider of compostable and flexible packaging, by fellow academic Professor Mike Ries. Futamura’s European operations are based at Wigton in Cumbria. The company produces compostable wrapping films from different production factories, and had found that some of its films were performing less well than others, leading to customer dissatisfaction.
As part of a subsequent collaboration with Futamura funded by the EPSRC, Dr Benitez decided to use the science of monoclonal antibodies (pioneered at the University of Leeds) to compare the changes in cellulose composition and discover how they affected the physical properties of the film.
She and colleague Dr Candelas Paniagua analysed the pulp profile of Futamura’s different films, and noted that pulps that were performing better as films had much higher concentrations of xylans and xyloglucans – a particular type of polysaccharides found in plant walls – which were then retained in the films. This was confirmed by mechanically testing of all of the films, which found that the poorer performing films from a US source were weaker. The company decided ultimately to discontinue that US source of production and switch to another.
A second project for Futamura involved finding additional biomaterials for the company, making use of agricultural waste in the hope of discovering new bioplastics. This was funded both by Futamura and by the University’s Bragg Centre for Materials Research. Dr Benitez Alfonso and two PhD students investigated the properties of both hemp waste and tomato waste, and found that in both, xylans and glucuronoxylans featured strongly. Futamura is now testing films containing 5% of hemp pulp.
In the questions and answer session that followed her presentation, Yoselin explained how her journey from fundamental plant scientist to materials innovator had occurred. She recommended the following:
1) Join interdisciplinary groups and attend seminars. Within the University, Dr Benitez Alfonso is a member of the Centre for Plant Sciences, the Astbury Centre, the Bragg Centre and the Global Food and Environment Institute. Each of these networks opens doors to new ways of thinking about your own research.
2) Give talks widely, to as many and as broad groups as possible. It’s only by raising your profile that people will see what you’re doing, and those interactions often lead to innovation opportunities.
3) Get the opinion of industry early on. It really helps to have input from industry to recognize which aspects of your research are of interest or promising. Dr Benitez Alfonso has an industrial advisory board, which helps her recognize which aspects of her work are promising.
4) Interact with the Research and Innovation teams at your University. They have experience to foresee what are the possible pitfalls that will hijack your innovation or promote it; they also have valuable knowledge about commercialisation and legal contracts and about what funders want.
5) Participate in other national or international networks in your field. Dr Benitez Alfonso is part of https://www.bbnet-nibb.co.uk/funding-network/lbnet/ and attends meetings and sandpit events, where industry and academics come together and where there are often sources of funding to enable the development of impact projects.
Professor Mike Ries: “Working directly with industry gives a different perspective”
Professor Mike Ries is an expert in cellulose, ionic liquids, and nuclear magnetic resonance working at the University of Leeds. He originally worked on synthetic polymers, but a chance comment by a colleague early in his career – “Why don’t you do what you do, but with cellulose?” – caused a shift in focus.
He explains: “Cellulose is found in every plant, so it is the most abundant biopolymer on earth, and it is extremely strong. The material has incredible potential to reduce our dependence on hydrocarbons – we just need to harness it.’ However, cellulose is hard to process, as it doesn’t ‘melt’. It first needs to be dissolved in a solvent, for example an ionic liquid, then materials can be formed through wet casting; this uses an antisolvent, such as water, to bring the polymer out of solution, creating solid cellulosic objects.
Professor Ries credits a research placement in the south of France at the Ecole des Mines de Paris, funded by the Royal Society, with kickstarting his ‘blue sky research’ into the field of cellulose. Subsequent EPSRC funding enabled a successful collaboration in 2013 with Futamura, the world’s leading producer of renewable cellulose films, based in Cumbria. Futamura’s ‘Nature Flex’ film is used in a variety of food wrapping and packaging such as confectionery, tea, coffee, and dairy products.
A Royal Society Industry Fellowship soon led him to be able to spend half his time with Futamura and engage in several different projects, forming a close long-term relationship with the company’s director of New Technology, Dr Martin Cockroft.
Professor Ries recommends that aspiring entrepreneurs should work directly with companies wherever possible to get commercial and real-world insight and experience. He explains: “Working directly with industry gives a different perspective. There is a much more rapid timescale – problems need to be solved quickly – and the scale of production often means that what seem to be small changes to an academic can have a major effect in practice.”
For example, by fine-tuning Futamura’s process to dissolve cellulose, Professor Ries was able to reduce the quantities of the chemicals needed. Although just a 2% efficiency, it led to a saving of over a million pounds a year, as well as a substantial improvement in the company’s environmental impact.
Professor Ries believes ‘experimenting for fun’ is vitally important. After working with Dr Peter Hine, who specialises in research bonding synthetic materials at high pressure and temperature, Professor Ries and his students began to experiment with a similar process – using an ionic liquid rather than heat – to make an all-cellulose composite. This resulted in a patent for the process, which has huge potential in creating structures, packaging and materials that are extremely strong, but fully biodegradable or renewable. The group is now looking at plastic products that can be replaced with cellulose composites, in the hopes that this will start to reduce our dependence on fossil fuel sources for materials.
Lastly, Professor Ries has this advice: “IP ownership can be a tricky subject in academic-industry collaborations. Industrial partners can be nervous about who will ultimately own critical patents, so ownership needs to be discussed openly from the start to reassure both parties.”
We also have speakers lined up for 15 September, 19 October, 22 November and 12 December 2022 if you wish to hold these slots in your diary (12pm for seminars, 1pm for networking and lunch).