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.
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 the Biomass Biorefinery Network 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.”
Professor Helen Gleeson (School of Physics and Astronomy and Bragg Centre for Materials Research) “Impact resistant polymers - the journey towards impact!” and Professor Caroline Orfila (School of Food Science and Nutrition) “Navigating academic-industry collaborations: Lessons from the CITRUSAFE project” Held on 19 October 2022
Recordings of this session can be viewed here
Professor Helen Gleeson: “I would never have thought about using them for these purposes, if there hadn’t been that initial request”
Professor Helen Gleeson (School of Physics and Astronomy) specialises in the field of liquid crystal technologies.
Liquid crystals are well known for their uses in the field of electronics. Since they change their optical properties when exposed to voltage, they are widely used in all types of screen displays. However, Professor Gleeson has always been interested in different liquid crystal systems and their wider potential. By putting together small liquid crystal molecules using an acrylate backbone, she and her team created an elastomer system, making a liquid crystal platform that was ultra-thin, flexible and shock-absorbent.
In 2008 Professor Gleeson was approached by an optometrist colleague keen to discuss the idea of creating switchable focus contact lenses containing liquid crystals. She remembers: “I wouldn’t have thought about using liquid crystals for these purposes if there hadn’t been that initial request.” Then experimenting with small liquid crystal molecules, Professor Gleeson’s team found that altering the voltage induced change in the refractive nature of a liquid crystal contact lens, with a corresponding change in focus, equivalent to putting on reading glasses.
This resulted in Professor Gleeson applying for a patent for the discovery and setting up her first spin-out company, Dynamic Vision Systems.
The success of the contact lens project led to further discussion about whether elastomeric liquid crystals could be linked to muscles in the eye, with possible practical use in medical procedures, such as permanently replacing the lens in the eye in cataract operations.
A new project, examining mechanically actuated elastomeric liquid crystals, followed. During that work, a completely new property was discovered – the fact that these materials become thicker when stretched rather than thinner. This, another exciting discovery, was patented at the University of Leeds and, with the commercialization team, Professor. Gleeson sought ways of commercializing this knowledge.
In 2019, Professor Gleeson secured funding from the Northern Triangle Initiative to take the material research beyond the lab. The funding has allowed her to recruit a team of scientists, along with a commercial consultant, and this has been invaluable for looking at additional market sector focus.
It’s now thought the range of potential applications and sectors for the technology could range from aerospace and architecture to biomedical applications and shock absorbers, and a University of Leeds spin-out company, LC AuxeTec Ltd., has been formed to take these materials to applications.
Funding from UK Research and Innovation has also enabled Professor Gleeson to explore the potential applications of this technology.
Meanwhile, Professor. Gleeson had some good advice for would-be entrepreneurs:
1) Work with experts from different fields
Professor Gleeson found that working with experts in different disciplines can be hugely useful, as it provides new challenges and opportunities to take advantage of. For example, an optometrist helped to establish the potential practical uses for this technology, while people moving on from their PhDs were prepared to take a risk and work on a short-term contract to explore the technology.
2) Speak to a commercial consultant
Even if you have a great new discovery with plenty of potential, it’s important to know what gaps in the market you can take advantage of. Working with a commercial consultant helped Professor Gleeson to assess what applications of liquid crystals were realistic and economically viable.
3) Keep up the momentum
If you want to maximise the number of people who will be interested in your idea, it’s important to ensure the wider community know about your work. During the pandemic, Professor Gleeson found that writing articles and sending out press releases was hugely useful for generating interest from other companies.
Professor Caroline Orfila: Creating value from food industry by-products
As many countries grapple with the challenge of reducing their environmental impact, finding new ways to cut down on waste is crucial. In the ‘Citrusafe’ project, led by Visiting Professor Caroline Orfila (School of Food Science and Nutrition) at the University of Leeds, researchers found an ingenious answer to this problem.
Citrusafe won funding in 2017 from the Newton UK-China Agritech Challenge, a competition with the aim of encouraging innovative partnerships to address Chinese agricultural challenges. Partnering with Zhejiang University in Hangzhou and with several companies in China and in the UK, the Citrusafe project had three aims: to reduce the amount of waste; to increase the safety of processed food; and to improve dietary health.
The academic and industrial research teams focused on an abundant product from China’s fruit processing industry: citrus mandarins. Around 20 million tonnes of the fruit are produced and processed annually, with many being used to create tinned or packaged mandarin segments. This process creates around 3 million tonnes of both solid and liquid waste every year and due to the Chinese government’s strict disposal regulations, there was a major incentive for the processing companies to find a valuable use for them.
The Chinese and UK companies were keen to work closely with the academic groups. Of the three UK companies in the project, Keracol is a spin-out from the University and located in Leeds; Parkside Flexibles is locally based and accommodated visits by the researchers, while Biopower in Milton Keynes was also very engaged, with managers making regular trips to Leeds.
Biopower worked on a process to dry and micronise the solid waste into different particle sizes, and Keracol used ‘green’ extraction processes to avoid creating any harmful chemical by-products. A similar extraction process took place with the liquid waste. The researchers worked collaboratively to optimise and characterise samples aimed at different industrial applications.
The resulting extracts were food-grade ingredients, for which the research team found a variety of commercial applications: food additives, such as gels, colourings, flavourings; fat replacements; and food preservatives. The extracts were also used in biodegradable packaging films, used to extend the shelf life of perishable food products.
The companies have since adopted the practices and products that were devised, creating value while reducing waste.
Professor Orfila had this advice for fellow entrepreneurs:
1) Work hard at collaborative relationships
Academic-Industry collaborations can be difficult, particularly so if they are international! Having a clear intent to collaborate from the beginning helped this particular project work very well, but effort will be needed for communication and relationship-building. Having post-doc researchers who spoke Mandarin was very helpful to help build relationships with the industry partners in particular.
2) Keep an eye out for additional commercial potential in joint work
While the IP agreement was in place from the start, Professor Orfila thought that earlier engagement with the University’s commercialisation team might have identified further opportunities as they arose.
3) Play to your partners’ strengths
While the academic researchers were able to come up with a variety of different uses for the waste products, the private companies were much more easily able to exploit gaps in the market and take these discoveries to their final form.
Dr Leonid Bogachev (School of Mathematics) “A story of trying to forecast extremes: from statistical modelling to commercialization” & Dr Paolo Actis (School of Electronic and Electrical Engineering) “Cracking tumour heterogeneity with nanobiopsy” Held on 15th September 2022
Recordings of this session can be viewed here
Dr Leonid Bogachev: “What an amazing journey!”
One of society’s biggest challenges is predicting future extreme events in all sectors of life, whether it’s the risk of a tsunami or volcano eruption, the likelihood of a sickness epidemic, the chance of a financial market crash or an international IT hacking attack.
Companies and governments need to have the most accurate predictions possible, and usually turn to statisticians and mathematicians for help in modelling potential future extremes. However, it has always been very difficult to model ‘non-stationary’ data — where different factors behind the data generation are changing with time. As a result, traditional risk modelling has tended to be based only on relatively steady, or stationary data, thus being less able to predict a ‘one-off’ event.
In 2007, a new PhD student János Gyarmati-Szabó arrived in Leeds to work on statistical modelling of non-stationary extremes, supervised jointly by Dr Bogachev and his collaborator Dr Haibo Chen from the Institute for Transport Studies. This research initially focused on air quality and high pollutant concentrations as extremes, incorporating environmental factors such as weather and traffic. By 2011, János developed a novel statistical approach that allowed for dynamic estimation and forecasting of non-stationary extremes. A few years later, this work has led to a research paper published in a prestigious impactful journal “Environmetrics”.
Incidentally, their research came to the attention of the School of Mathematics as a potential impact case study for REF 2021, and Dr Bogachev was encouraged to explore other potential applications for their new approach to modelling extreme events. Discussions were held with a range of organisations including DEFRA, Met Office, and Leeds City Council, before moving towards applications in the world of finance and banking.
The team engaged with Research and Innovation Service (RIS) and secured a range of pump-priming awards to move their forecasting technology along the commercialisation path, including EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account (IAA) funding for Proof of Market, followed by a Northern Triangle Initiative (NTI) grant and IAA Proof of Concept funding.
This series of staged funding, with support and guidance by RIS, has helped the team to develop and commercialise their proprietary software platform (coined “4-Xtra”), combining statistical modelling and machine learning. As a result, this has led to incorporation of a University spin-out company, 4-Xtra Technologies Limited, in June 2021.
As part of the journey, the new technology came to the notice of Finastra, the third-biggest fintech company in the world. A sustained collaboration with Finastra (which included a co-funded LIDA internship and a variety of joint webinar presentations) has led to the promotion of two 4-Xtra products on Finastra’s web portal FusionFabric.com (FFDC).
To secure the IP protection of the new technology, a patent application was filed in June 2022 to the European Patent Office including use cases in health and environment, complemented by financial examples for the simultaneous US filing. 4-Xtra Technologies Ltd is actively seeking a further multi-million investment, and has recently secured its first contract with a building society.
Dr Bogachev said he was amazed at the speed of the commercial journey his research had taken. He felt he could share a few ‘lessons’ with fellow researchers:
- It pays to be open-minded, curious, and proactive.
- Commercialisation won’t come and get you — you need to reach out.
- Academic research takes a long time but try to be ‘funding-ready’ at all times.
- Think big, start small, scale fast! (heard from Finastra)
- Last but not least, engage with RIS as early as you can, even if you don’t feel ready yet.
Dr Paolo Actis: “Understanding cellular diversity”
For many years, the question of why seemingly identical cells behave differently has puzzled researchers. Understanding this diversity could help to answer a number of important questions in the field of medical science, such as why some cells are able to resist cancer treatment.
For many years, genome sequencing was prohibitively expensive, but recent advances have enabled researchers to effectively sequence the genomes of a single cell. Typically, this was done by taking a cell out of a sample, killing it, and then analysing the contents to provide the information needed.
Dr Paolo Actis, while a researcher at the University of California Santa Cruz in 2008, realised that while a “cell autopsy” provides a wealth of information, a biopsy would offer even more invaluable data, since it would allow the cell to carry on living and continue to be analysed at a later stage.
Dr Actis explains in his talk how he and colleagues at UC Santa Cruz pioneered a new technique of ‘single cell nanobiopsy’, which involves removing a small amount of cytoplasm for analysis. This enables researchers to extract RNA, which acts as a messenger between DNA and ribosomes in the cell, for sequencing, without killing the original ‘parent’ cell.
A patent for Dr Actis’s process was granted in 2019. He is now at the University of Leeds, where his research group is aiming to develop an electrical nanobiopsy platform capable of extracting genetic material and organelles from single cells. His current research project centres on using the technique to find out understand how brain tumour cells change, and sometimes survive, during radiotherapy and chemotherapy treatments.
For fellow researchers wanting to make the shift to industry, Dr Actis outlined some of his guiding principles:
The right ’ecosystem’: It is vital to be surrounded by an environment that fosters creativity, from facilities to funding. Being able to approach a challenge from different angles can help to overcome issues and embrace innovations. In 2009, UC Santa Cruz was not only in the forefront of the scientific work to sequence the human genome, but also where experts in related fields were located. Being able to rely on colleagues, who specialised in bioinformatics, enabled Dr Actis to pick out the important parts of ‘noisy’ data.
Timing: Dr Actis has been working in genome sequencing since 2008, which is when new scientific innovations made this type of analysis much simpler and cheaper. He believes he wasn’t a visionary, but was simply interested in solving a particular problem and embraced this new technology as a way to do it.
Serendipity: Dr Actis described how, to his surprise, his process was outlined in a science fiction book – Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir – named by President Barack Obama as one of his favourites in 2021. This set off even more interest in the nanobiopsy process from different sections of society.
Professor Anwesha Sarkar (School of Food Science and Nutrition) “AquaLub: A stick – slip road from discovery towards commercializing a medical device” & Professor Helen Philippou (School of Medicine) “LUNAC company journey: from academia to spin-out”
Recordings of this session can be viewed here
Professor Anwesha Sarkar: Creating Aqualub: a nature-inspired biogel
The human body produces a variety of natural lubricants, from the saliva that helps us to swallow to the synovial fluid that helps our joints to move smoothly. But if our bodies can no longer produce these, perhaps because of illness or old age, it can cause a number of issues.
These include osteoarthritis, where a lack of fluid in the joints makes them painful and stiff – or dry eye syndrome, where tear ducts can’t produce enough fluid.
One of the most common problems caused by lack of natural lubricant is dry mouth, resulting from problems with saliva glands. This can make eating a difficult process and raise the risk of choking, as well as leading to tooth decay and resulting in expensive dental bills.
This is what Professor Anwesha Sarkar from the School of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Leeds set out to resolve when she first started to develop Aqualub. This new product is a nature-inspired biocompatible aqueous lubricant, which she hopes can be a platform technology for solving several different medical issues, such as those mentioned above.
For example, around one in ten people in the UK suffer from this problem and it typically affects the elderly, cancer patients, and people with autoimmune diseases. Due to the difficulty it causes in swallowing, it can very often lead to malnutrition, as affected people often eat less. While over-the-counter sprays are available to remedy this problem, they don’t often work effectively.
Professor Sarkar’s new platform technology, Aqualub, is a microgel dispersion which is made of a mix of biopolymers and water. One of the common problems with over-the-counter dry mouth sprays is that they don’t tend to last long, as they get easily washed away by water. With Aqualub, however, the microgel dispersion sticks to the tongue and slowly releases the water over time. Not only does this help to tackle the problem of dry mouth, but it also means that you don’t have to keep reapplying this oral therapy, as it is not as easy to wash off.
During her time developing Aqualub, Professor Sarkar learnt several valuable lessons that other entrepreneurs can benefit from:
Get your commercialisation team involved early in the innovation process. If you think your idea is inventive and has a true business potential, it’s very important to involve your institution’s Research and Innovation Services, or commercialisation team, in the early stages. That can be even before you start generating any data – but it means the IP strategy can be effectively evaluated and even some proof of market study can be initiated to examine the translational potential.
Innovation is a rather bumpy road. You might think you have got a solid business case with reasonable opportunity size, business model and also also a clear plan for execution, so that there can be a spin out tomorrow - it’s not always that straightforward! Sometimes it requires lot more realms of data - technical and commercial elements are just pieces of the puzzle. Hence, it’s important to stay patient: keep talking to the commercialisation team, seek guidance, apply for various impact and catalyst funds and keep building the portfolio dataset efficiently.
Professor Helen Philippou: Creating the next generation of anticoagulants
Blood clots in the body can cause serious harm if left untreated, as they prevent oxygen from circulating and reaching tissues. In a worst-case scenario, this leads to strokes or heart attacks.
Doctors use the newest class of anti-clotting drugs (direct oral anticoagulants, or DOACs) to treat clots, but they can still be dangerous because excessive bleeding can result. Patients treated with current DOACs run a risk of serious bleeding, estimated at 4-21% of all patients treated, or and serious bleeds may lead to death.
Professor Helen Philippou, from the University of Leeds’s School of Medicine, aimed to address this when she started LUNAC Therapeutics in 2018, after ten years of research at Imperial College London. Professor Philippou decided to target the plasma protein, activated Factor XII, which plays a key role in the process of blood clotting.
Arriving at the University of Leeds, Professor Philippou hoped to develop an anticoagulant with minimal risk of causing additional bleeding. Since even a moderate improvement in bleeding risk would greatly increase the desirability of a new anticoagulant drug, Professor Philippou knew that it was an area of major interest to pharmaceutical companies.
However it was at that stage quite unusual to develop pharmaceuticals in an academic setting. Professor Philippou won funding worth £10,000 from the Yorkshire Enterprise Scholarship, which also offered valuable training and advice about commercialisation, such as how to protect intellectual property and raise additional sources of funding. Key to her plans was colleague Richard Foster (School of Chemistry) who began to work with her on molecular candidates that might target Factor XII. Thirty candidate molecules were identified and screening began.
Drug development is an intensive process, so in 2018 Professor Philippou set up LUNAC Therapeutics to attract life science investor funding. She hopes to develop a ‘first-in-class’ anticoagulant therapy without risk of increased bleeding.
Professor Philippou learned some valuable lessons which she discussed at the Inspiring Innovation seminar:
- Work with people with different specialities
When she first set out to find a molecule that would aid in the coagulation process, Professor Philippou approached her colleague, Dr Richard Foster, in the Chemistry department, who also had a background working in industry.
- Be prepared to make a firm commitment in time and energy
Building a successful product won’t happen overnight. Finding grant funding and following through with the necessary work will take considerable time – make sure you have the energy to see it through over many years.
- Find a niche instead of casting a wide net
When setting up LUNAC, Professor Philippou had originally hoped to create a product that could be widely marketed. However, she quickly found that by reducing her scope to solving a specific problem, such as treating patients that could not be treated with current approaches, it was much easier for her to find a market niche.
Professor Kang Li (School of Electronic and Electrical Engineering) “Smart Energy Hubs to Support Railway Decarbonization” & Professor Robert Kay (School of Mechanical Engineering) "The CHAMP project: Ceramic Hybrid Additive Manufacturing Platform"
Recordings of this session can be viewed here
Professor Kang Li: Decarbonising the railway network using microgrids
Professor Kang Li, who specialises in smart energy systems, has been involved for many years in the transport sector’s efforts to decarbonize vehicles and trains that run on fossil fuels.
The UK Government wants to electrify the UK’s rail network, and has set out an ambitious timeline to do so by 2040, but decarbonizing the UK’s 10,000 miles of track will need significant investment.
But electrifying the network involves a greater reliance on the UK’s National Grid of electric power – itself already under pressure thanks to increased demand from many other sources. This increased coupling of the transport and electricity sectors is causing greater vulnerability to outages. And, as yet only 40% of the rail network is electrified. Some track is not suitable for electrification; others require extremely expensive modifications. The rail network uses about 1.2% of the UK electricity consumption total, amounting to 4 Terrawatt hours per year.
Professor Li and his team have come up with the novel solution of Smart Energy Hubs. This involves establishing a local ‘micro grid’ in an area that can supply - and store - energy by using local renewable sources. The energy hubs could then supply electrical power for the traction power supply systems which in turn supply power to traction motors on the train, or directly charge battery trains. Energy storage solutions could also be used to provide energy for other parts of the rail network, including ticket offices, heating, which account for 10% of present consumption. There is also scope to recycle approximately one-third of the traction power supply.
The researchers have assessed the feasibility on 7 stations in Scotland and England – a mixture of both busy urban stations and small rural ones - along non-electrified infrequent routes.
Work has progressed through a discovery phase, supported by Ofgem, through feasibility studies, and now into the development phase and commercial design, being supported by Network Rail and system operators. This included undertaking a cost-benefit analysis which provided evidence for several significant benefits.
If scaled up, the Smart Energy Hubs would save the railway network around £2.3 bn in capital spending costs, including for the 2,400km of grid where electrification is either not possible or too expensive; it would save operating costs of as much as £32 million per year if rolled out to all possible locations; and the system would allow the selling back of stored power to the National Grid, estimated at about £13 million a year.
Most importantly, of course, the decarbonization of the network would mean a reduction of 30 million tonnes of CO2 over a period of between 4 and 13 years.
The team is now looking into the design of a novel business model and a university spin-off for roll-out of the technology.
Professor Li had this advice for other academics working in innovative industries:
- Be prepared to get out of your comfort zone
Innovation projects require that you be prepared for shorter deadlines and get out of your comfort zone by meeting partners and other stakeholders. This is a significant time and effort commitment and will inevitably squeeze your available time for other work.
- Create a win-win partnership with project partners and key stakeholders
Get to know your project partners well through regular online and face-to-face meetings. Building trust and understanding their goals will help create a win-win partnership, which will be key to success.
Professor Robert Kay: A revolutionary way of manufacturing functional products
A Professor in Advanced Manufacturing at the University of Leeds, Robert Kay works at the interface of materials and manufacturing. Interested in 3D printing, Professor Kay found that there had not been much research into exploring how to build ceramics with this process. Given that ceramics have applications in everything from aerospace engineering to biomedical technology, he set out to change that.
Traditionally, people have taken existing processes from metals and polymers and applied them to ceramics, but Robert felt that this approach was limiting. His team developed the Ceramics Hybrid Additive Manufacturing Platform, or CHAMP for short.
Essentially, this works by taking a paste made of ceramic particles in an aqueous binding solution and 3d printing this material. Subsequent layers can then be added, building different shapes, which can then be micromachined to the right specification. Finally, the piece is bound together with extreme heat, making it much denser and more wear-resistant.
The CHAMP process has several advantages over traditional ceramics manufacturing. For a start, it allows pieces to be made with a higher degree of quality. And the designer can have greater freedom to create much more geometrically complex pieces. Furthermore, existing ceramic material formulations used in conventional manufacturing lines can be processed within this platform enabling industry to seamlessly adopt the technology.
But one of its biggest advantages of hybrid additive manufacturing is that it can eliminate waste, saving companies huge amounts of money. Typically, defective parts have to be thrown away but with CHAMP, defective layers can simply be removed and reworked.
To commercialise his new process, Professor Kay used funding from the University of Leeds Impact Accelerator Account, which enabled him to conduct a six-month project with industrial partners. This helped him to not only demonstrate the potential value of his new technology but also de-risk the research, making it much more attractive to potential industrial adopters. As a result of this successful project one of the industrial partners provided funding to the University in order to develop a machine for their factory.
This collaboration gave the company the technical experience of material formulation, while the University retained the intellectual property rights to the manufacturing process. This allows Robert and his team to further exploit the technology and continue fundamental research for new application areas and new materials.
Securing funding isn’t always an easy job, so if you’re an aspiring inventor, Robert has this advice for you:
- Be thick-skinned and keep trying – When applying for funding, don’t be disheartened if you don’t secure it immediately. Many sources can be very risk-averse, so if you don’t get approval from one, move on and try another.
- Manage the expectations of your industrial partners – When building relationships with industry, beware of over-promising, or you could damage their trust. Being honest while managing expectations is the best way to grow strong connections with partners.
- Don’t be afraid to ask industry directly for funding – Adequate funding is the lifeblood of any project and if you can’t secure it from a public body, don’t be afraid to approach industry for it – if you don’t ask you don’t get! Of course, don’t forget to make sure your intellectual property is protected when working with the private sector.
Professor Doug Parker (School of Earth and Environment) “FASTA: Seeking sustainability for African rainfall information services through private sector funding” & Professor Janet Cade (School of Food Science and Nutrition) " Spinning out – myfood24 from research to health tech company "
Recordings of this session can be viewed here
Doug Parker – Helping to save lives with accurate weather forecasting
In the West, we take accurate weather forecasting for granted, but in the developing world reliable forecasts are a luxury. In many countries in Africa a large percentage of people live in rural areas or work in agriculture. Many others live in informal urban settlements which have been built in flood-prone areas. They are especially vulnerable to heavy rains and storms, which can cause dangerous flash floods or wreak havoc on crops and property. And as climate change continues to affect weather patterns, these problems will only become more common.
Doug Parker, a Professor of Meteorology at the University of Leeds, realized that a lack of infrastructure was preventing access to reliable weather forecasting in many African countries.
His enterprise, FASTA (Forecasting African STorms Application), uses Nowcasting technology to deliver very short-term predictions of weather changes to communities who need it most.
The Nowcasting delivered by FASTA involves using satellite imagery to monitor cloud cover and to estimate rainfall, creating visual representations of how the weather will change in the next few hours. Once Professor Parker’s team have this information, they send it to local people via an app available on smartphones, and to organisations via a web page.
One of FASTA’s core objectives is to work together and share profits with local agencies in the host countries. By building connections with local communities, they can help to nurture local technical
FASTA is now hosted within the UK’s National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS), based at the University, and NCAS gives security for the operation to be run reliably for the years to come. Since 2019, the enterprise has delivered Nowcasting services to several countries, including Kenya, Ghana, and Senegal. They also expect to expand to Zambia and Mozambique in the near future and have plans to further develop the system, continually improving their prediction algorithms.
For academics with an idea that could have a valuable real-world application, Professor Parker has this advice:
Don’t be disheartened if you don’t have experience in creating a business model, just create one – When Professor Parker set up FASTA, he just wanted to use his research to help people. It wasn’t until the project was already underway that a colleague helped him to build a clear plan for the business. Simply creating a summary of known costs and expected income according to various contingencies has been vital in all sorts of strategic decisions.
Find several different sources of funding – One issue that FASTA struggled with was the sudden reduction of Official Development Assistance funding in 2021, due to government cutbacks. This occurred at the critical time when FASTA was transitioning from a research basis to an innovation basis – the “innovation gap”. When setting up a company you should be aware of this tricky phase of the project, and try to diversify funding from different sources as far as possible.
Don’t be afraid to change your plans in response to the clients’ needs – Originally, Professor Parker and his team had planned to build an API (Application Programming Interface) to communicate their predictions on their partners’ apps and web pages. Quite soon, however, they realised that creating their own dedicated app would be more effective, and this is now in much greater demand.
Professor Janet Cade: Using technology to fight diet related disease
Obesity is a major global health crisis. Being overweight can raise the risk of a variety of health conditions, from high blood pressure to joint problems, and is now a leading cause of death in the UK. According to government figures, obesity costs the NHS more than £6 billion each year due to the illnesses it causes.
A poor diet is, of course, a major factor in people becoming overweight. Providing consumers with accurate information about nutrition is something that Professor Janet Cade wanted to address when she set up her company, myfood24.
Professor Cade, who leads the Nutritional Epidemiology Group at the University of Leeds, had spent more than 25 years working in academia. In 2012, she received a grant from the Medical Research Council to help bring dietary assessment into the 21st century by using new technology.
There are many commercial dietary advice apps on the market, with varying degrees of accuracy. For example, some apps tend to overestimate calories consumed, providing misleading data.
That’s why, in 2020, Professor Cade and her team launched the myfood24 app to both give people better nutritional advice and experts greater access to dietary information. The app not only gives individuals feedback about the nutrients, including calories, provided by what they are eating, but saves data about their nutritional intake, which can be used by their healthcare professional to support accurate advice.
One of the unique selling points of the myfood24 app is that it can offer feedback on a wide range of important nutrients, showing where these come from as well as how to reach your personal targets and doesn’t just count a user’s calorie intake. The person can choose what they’ve eaten from a unique database of foodstuffs and can see the nutritional value of what they consume. Then, the app uses machine learning to suggest what types of food the user should increase or decrease in their diet to reach their goals.
NHS trials in York, Leeds, and Bradford found that the app had strong potential for use in a clinical setting, such as a GP appointment, allowing doctors to quickly and accurately tailor support for individuals. Furthermore, more than half of patients who used this app said that they would use the apps feedback for advice at their next appointment.
By 2023, myfood24 has had more than 100 thousand users across 12 different languages, and Professor Cade wants to expand its functionality.
If you want to take your research into a real-world setting, Professor Cade has this advice for aspiring entrepreneurs:
- Don’t be shy about asking for funding, even for a commercial product. Some academics may think a paid product is less ‘worthy’ than a product that is freely available. Although that’s not true, without proper funding, great commercial ideas won’t get off the ground.
- Money is the lifeblood of any company, and it’s vital to have enough to cover your operating costs. While most people can be hesitant to apply for funding, if you don’t ask, you don’t get!
- Stand out amongst your competitors – In many fields, your product or service is likely to be up against stiff competition. That’s why it’s important to differentiate your product, so that potential customers can see an obvious reason to choose you.
- Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket – While Professor Cade hopes to get partnerships with the NHS, she also applied for commercial partnerships in the private sector in case she wasn’t able to. By diversifying options, entrepreneurs can make their projects more resilient.
Dr Anthony Buckley (School of Food Science and Nutrition) & Professor Nik Kapur (School of Mechanical Engineering) Joint presentation on: " Unleashing the power of in-vitro gut models: a symbiotic relationship between innovation and science "
Recording for this session can be viewed here
Dr Tony Buckley and Professor Nikil Kapur: Replicating the gut biome for research
The human gut is a hugely complex biome, containing tens of trillions of microbes that help to break down the food we eat, protect us from infections, and play an important role in a maintaining our bodily functions, like our immune system. Everyone’s gut is unique, we all have our own collection of microbes (or microbiome) that is different to anyone else.
However, the complexity of the gut environment has always made it very difficult to accurately replicate, or model, for research purposes – yet understanding the interaction between its microbes and the human body might be key to solving a whole range of illnesses.
Traditional methods for researching the conditions in the gut biome is with the use of gut models. Such models range from high-throughput simple cultures to lower-throughput multi-compartment models that better mimic the different regions of the digestive system. The multi-compartment models have shown good clinical reflectiveness, but one drawback is they are complex to run and low throughput, requiring considerable space, staff time, and resources. To capture the complex microbial community found in the human gut, live microbiome derived from human faecal samples are used in these different but linked vessels.
Dr Tony Buckley, an Associate Professor in Gut Microbiology, and Professor Nikil Kapur, who specializes in Applied Fluid Mechanics, combined their expertise to find a new and innovative way to model the gut biome. Drawing on their skills, together with Professor Peter Culmer who specialises in control, Dr Ines Moura an expert in molecular microbiology, and William Davis Birch, a talented PhD student, they created ‘MiGut’ system. This is a miniaturized model of the large intestine, where three interconnected vessels have individual environmental controls that mirror the proximal, medial, and distal colon.
Liquid ‘food’ is fed into the first vessel, and flows from one to the next vessels, each vessel harbouring the different microbial ecologies found in the human colon. Finally, the waste flows out of the other end. MiGut allows researchers to sample the microbial populations in the different vessels over time, while having control over variables, such as pH, temperature, and nutrient flow. Each MiGut platform consists of four individually controlled parallel models to run as replicates or to investigate different test conditions, such as how different individuals might respond a drug or nutrient. The platform has been specially designed so that it is easy to setup and operate, meaning that many models can be run simultaneously.
The project first got off the ground in 2018 with £15,000 of funding from an interdisciplinary seed-corn grant, which helped Dr Buckley and Professor Kapur to do some initial planning and modelling. The following year, they were part of a £2.3 million grant from the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) led by Professor Mark Wilcox who leads the HCAI group at the University of Leeds, , which enabled them to increase MiGut capacity. They now also work in partnership with industry including the biotherapeutics company Seres Therapeutics Inc, and a nutrition company Optibiotix.
The first challenge of MiGut was to test the impact of antibiotic-induced dysbiosis, which is when antibiotics in the digestive tract effects all the microbes there, not just the pathogens. Initial tests showed that microbes in the MiGut system acted in a similar way to those observed in other large-scale traditional tests, though MiGut had much lower operating costs. This showed that their model has good potential for use in industrial testing due to the scalable nature, and the miniaturised system means less test material is needed.
One area that MiGut is finding application is in investigating the impact of new drugs on the intestinal microbiome, as this allows companies to screen new drugs, reducing the need for animal or human subjects. Another area is the development of functional nutrients, like different fibres, that can enhance our health. It is important to determine how individuals react to new nutrients so foods can be made that are healthy and provide the nutrients we need right through our lifetime.
Meanwhile, the creators are also planning to use the MiGut framework for a new project. ‘RoboHog’ is a model that aims to accurately capture the digestive system of a pig. This will mean that new nutrition supplements and medicines can be trialled without having to rely on traditional animal testing.
If you want to apply your research into the real world, Dr Buckley and Professor Kapur have this advice for entrepreneurs:
- Collaborate with people from outside your discipline: Radical innovation often needs a diverse array of skills and approaches. If you want to create a new product or service, work with people from different fields so you can take advantage of their expertise.
- Don’t be disheartened if progress is slow: Eureka moments are rare in real life and while you might not achieve success immediately, small steps in the right direction add up over time. Maintain momentum and prioritise keeping some progress going so you are ready when a larger opportunity comes along.
- Be clear with your private sector partners: Working with businesses can open up new opportunities for your work, but it is important to know where each partner stands. Early on in your relationship, make sure you are clear about who owns what when a breakthrough is made.
Dr Virginia Pensabene (School of Electronic and Electrical Engineering) “How engineers renovate the in vitro embryo culture environment: microfluidics and material approaches to support assistive reproductive technologies” & Professor Gin Jose (School of Chemical and Process Engineering) and Dr Almut Beige (School of Physics and Astronomy) Joint presentation on: "The puzzle of non-invasive biosensing- solving with quantum photonics"
Recordings for this session can be viewed here
Microfluidics and material approaches to support assistive reproductive technologies – Dr Virginia Pensabene
In vitro fertilisation (IVF) is a simple concept. Bring together eggs and sperm from two people and allow the resulting embryo to grow in a dish so that, when it’s fully developed, it can be implanted back into the patient. Unfortunately, this simplicity is deceptive. On average, couples go through three IVF cycles before they have a successful pregnancy. With each cycle costing £5000, this comes at a huge financial as well as emotional cost for patients.
When Dr Virginia Pensabene joined the School of Electronic and Electrical Engineering at Leeds, she was working on microfluidic models of the reproductive system. Microfluidic models are tiny devices that manipulate very small quantities of liquids, passing them through channels that are smaller than a human hair. Not long after her arrival at Leeds, Dr Pensabene met Professor Helen Picton from the School of Medicine, who had been interested in the potential of microfluidics to improve success rates in IVF for some time. They immediately saw the advantage of working together.
The embryos used in IVF are some of the most sensitive of all human cells, yet they are cultured in an open petri dish, covered with mineral oil. This makes it difficult to create a stable environment, as the dish is exposed to changes in light, temperature and humidity. Even the oil itself can be toxic if not handled correctly.
Dr Pensabene and Professor Picton have together developed a microfluidic device that could replace the petri dish and which mimics the natural environment of embryo in the fallopian tube.
The concept in itself was nothing new – research in this area dates back to 2001 and there have been numerous patents filed, though none have been successfully exploited. But bringing together Dr Pensabene’s technical expertise with Professor Picton’s knowledge of IVF in the clinic gave the Leeds team a huge advantage.
The team have now patented their technology and created a prototype that, when tested with mice, is able to achieve higher numbers of viable embryos and increase pregnancy success rates. They’ve manufactured the device in different materials for different uses, with detailed testing to ensure changes in material or manufacturing processes don’t negatively impact the embryos’ development.
They’ve scaled up the design so it can be tested with bovine embryos, which are closer to human embryos in size and development. And they are also developing sensors to continuously monitor acidity and oxygen levels within the device, both factors that can impact viability and future health of the embryo.
Through a partnership with a livestock breeding company, they are going to test the device in sheep as the next step. Gaining regulatory approval for use in human IVF is likely to be a long process, so the team are considering other markets for the device as well, such as in breeding genetic mouse models for research, or with both cattle and sheep in the livestock sector.
Dr Pensabene had the following advice for researchers looking to develop a new product:
Get feedback from a wide range of stakeholders at an early stage:
The team used an ICURe ((Innovation to Commercialisation of University Research) programme grant to consult with lots of stakeholders involved in IVF, including embryologists, technicians and patients. A stakeholder network can continue to give feedback as a product develops, on everything from compatibility with clinical processes and equipment to cost of manufacture.
It’s possible to progress a technology using small pots of money:
Most of the work to develop the product was done using small grants, which is often all that’s available. She recommends breaking down your research into small objectives that, step by step, will bring you closer to your final goal.
Get the right mix of expertise in place:
For Dr Pensabene, the partnership with Professor Picton has been key to the project’s success, bringing together engineering and medical expertise. She recommends getting advice and support from the business development team in the University’s Research and Innovation Service who can also help to bring on board consultants for specialist support.
Bringing ‘touch’ glucose monitoring a step closer with quantum sensors
Non-invasive glucose monitoring of people with diabetes – checking glucose levels without taking a blood sample - has been a dream of research scientists for over several decades.
Over 400 million people worldwide live with the condition and need to keep glucose levels under close control, making the glucose monitoring market worth an estimated £10 billion.
Finding an alternative to regular painful and invasive fingertip prick testing has attracted famous names like Google and Apple, but in over a decade of development, reliable non-invasive devices still aren’t a reality.
Professor Gin Jose, Chair of Functional Materials at Leeds, specialises in photonic glass and nanomaterials. In 2009 he developed a glass ‘photonic chip’, implanted with fluorescent ions using a laser, that could interact with glucose molecules in the skin and cause a measurable change in signal within the chip. This raised the possibility of measuring a person’s glucose levels through the skin.
Although he patented his discoveries in 2009 and 2012, and set up a spinout group to conduct clinical trials using the chip for patients with Type 1 diabetes, he ran into difficulties. The product was promising, but timelines imposed during the spinout process proved to be impossible. Most importantly, attempts to improve the detection of molecules deeper down in the skin to improve the chip’s performance were not successful.
A new approach was needed, Prof. Jose contacted a quantum optician, Dr Almut Beige, Associate Professor in Quantum Photonics, who had moved to Leeds in 2005. As a theorist working with systems involving spontaneous photon emission, she was interested in studying the possibilities of extending the range of atomic interactions using partially transparent mirrors and photon measurements.
Dr Beige was excited by the idea of photonic devices and realised that improving the modelling of the atomic interactions could be key to measuring glucose concentrations more accurately.
She explains: “These explorations gave us a much better understanding of how the sensor was working, and also with that knowledge came the possibility of making it more effective.”
The team filed a new patent based on this new approach in March 2023 and also set up a new company, NIQS, with the help of an Innovate UK grant and money from private investors. Professor Jose says: “We knew we had a very strong IP portfolio in the new company – and this gave us the ability to see how it could be adapted for both the consumer and the medical market.”
The team is now working on three different prototypes: a portable handheld ‘touch’ device; a sensor module which connects to a smartphone app; and a wearable device that allows continuous monitoring. All will use the optimised sensor chips with improved sensitivity. The aim of this is to develop more robust devices, ahead of the next stage of miniaturisation, and it’s hoped that new clinical studies can take place soon. In 2023 the Royal Society of Chemistry named NIQS as the winner of its Emerging Technology (Health) competition.
Professor Jose says he has learned many lessons from his experience that he is keen to pass on to fellow entrepreneurs. Among them are the following:
- Don’t file a patent too early - after a year the running charges become expensive and the timelines can cause too much pressure. Wait until your innovation is well and truly on the road to commercialisation.
- Find the best experts to work with you on all of the different aspects. For Professor Jose, that included people who know the physics, people who specialise in clinical trials, and people who know their medical device materials.
- Choose investors wisely who have good knowledge of the field. Their understanding of the particular timelines and challenges – in this case, of the medical devices field - will be essential.