For someone with a needle phobia, developing Type 1 diabetes and having to self-inject insulin twice a day was a troublesome experience for Peter Bailey, especially as he often found it tricky to hold the needle steady, occasionally tearing or bruising the skin or hitting a nerve. So he came up with the TickleFLEX, an injection aid designed to make self-administering insulin a more worry-free process.

It saw him become a finalist in 2016 on Design Council Spark, a 16-week product innovation support programme, and he was awarded £15,000 from a Design Council Spark fund. The programme and the award are both dedicated to turning bright design ideas into commercially viable products – igniting diversity of thinking and collaboration in the process – and accelerating the end products to market.

Indeed, since its inception, the programme has helped more than 100 innovators and entrepreneurs develop their product ideas, 45 of which have been intensively supported with mentoring, funding and specialist input to help them become a commercial success.

With this year’s Spark Home Innovation Challenge seeking applicants who have a bright idea for independent living, Bailey’s continuing commitment to improve the quality of life of diabetics is particularly pertinent.

Man with a plan

“I’d never been comfortable with self-injecting,” Bailey recalls. “Every now and then it could be painful, which would create a psychological block and I’d tense up.” Aware that other diabetics were probably in a similar situation, Bailey – who has experience in mechatronics, the multiple discipline of mechanics, electronics and software – applied himself to finding a product solution.

A few prototypes later, he settled on his design, which clipped onto an insulin pen and stimulated the local nerves in the skin with little silicon fingers so they wouldn’t feel any additional contact from the needle – a principle referred to as distraction analgesia. “It’s kind of like rubbing an ache or scratching an itch,” he explains.

Tickleflex concept

“I was the guinea pig, as I slowly tried to perfect the product. The critical moment came when the Spark judging panel felt it warranted me getting a place on the programme.”

All change

An essential part of good design is the iterative process of prototyping, testing, analysing and refining products a number of times. Design Council’s Double Diamond is crucial to this creative process, where ideas are discovered, defined, developed and delivered.

The Spark programme mirrors this process of trial and error; finalists are encouraged – through a series of workshops and one-to-one mentoring led by specialist design experts – to continually improve upon their ideas. The result is that, more often than not, products can evolve and change significantly over the 16 weeks. Such was the case with Bailey’s TickleFLEX.

“I was halfway through developing my product when I came up with a better idea. Rather than 28 different parts, my new design had just two,” Bailey says. “I knew the simplified version was superior and decided to take the risk and change it. It was a hard decision, so I was delighted when Design Council appreciated the improvement and my courage for making such a fundamental design change.”

Tickleflex prototype

He continues: “Spark then encouraged me to take the TickleFLEX out to the wider audience. I went to Diabetes UK meetings and talked to fellow diabetics, giving out samples when they became available. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive, so that gave me confidence and the product credibility.”

Next steps

The finalised product attaches to the end of the insulin pen, hiding the needle and gripping the skin to block the pain pathways. “When pushed against the skin, the silicon fingers pucker the tissue, so the needle goes into fat rather than nerves,” Bailey explains. “It means you can control the depth, so you don’t risk injecting into muscle.” The result? A safer, more consistent and more comfortable way of self-administering insulin.

It has been on the market for more than a year, garnering positive feedback. “Imagine the mother who has to inject her child several times a day,” Bailey says. “When once this might have been stressful, we hear that kids are now calling the TickleFLEX their friend. People are saying that they no longer feel angst at the thought of their injection and that they no longer look like a pincushion.”

TickleFLEX in action

TickleFLEX is currently available through the UK website, and the next step is to spread its message further afield. Thanks to the networking opportunities available on the Design Council Spark programme, Bailey was introduced to Bola Lafe of Opus Innovations, who has taken on the sales and marketing of TickleFLEX while Bailey concentrates on the innovation and production.

“This year, we have set our hearts on building a global distribution network and that’s looking hopeful,” says Bailey.

Secret of success

When asked why he thinks TickleFLEX has proved a hit, Bailey doesn’t hesitate: “It was a product born out of personal need. I speak with authority about TickleFLEX because, as a Type 1 diabetic, I am highly credible. I’d like to take the same principle and expand it into other areas where diabetics may have issues. If I can do anything that helps reduce the number of people suffering, that’s a good objective.”

“We wouldn’t be where we are now without Spark,” he concludes. “Yes, it provided funding, but it also gave me support and credibility. The overall encouragement throughout the programme gives you confidence – and there’s a creative buzz.”

Got a bright idea for helping people at home? Apply now for the Spark Home Innovation Challenge.

TickleFLEX is £14.95 and is available to buy from www.tickleflex.com

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