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Finding a new use for an existing design helped attract £375,000 backing.

The University of Nottingham is certainly not short of a commercial success. With 15 new technologies licensed per year alongside 26 new spin out companies, their Technology Transfer Office (TTO) is in an enviable position. However, despite their track record, they still found the journey from concept to market far from easy, with many products floundering along the way. In 2010 their Technology Transfer Officer, Dr George Rice approached Design Council for expert support and participated in our programme for tech start-ups which eventually led to a further £375,000 in investment funding.  

The Heartlight challenge

Projects can flounder in no man's land because they are too-far developed to attract research funding but not developed enough to secure real market interest.

Dr George Rice, Technology Transfer Officer, University of Nottingham

Over a number of years, University of Nottingham's TTO had developed a piece of technology that offered a new way to measure a person’s heartbeat using a small, unobtrusive, light-based device. They called it Heartlight.

The technology was originally developed in collaboration with mining company Rio Tinto, who wanted to collect data on their employees at work in difficult conditions. A prototype had been produced and the university had received funding to start trials. However, since many trials are required before a medical product can launch, the university was keen to identify a speedier route to take the technology to market.  

That's where our expert and technology Design Associate, Neil Gridley stepped in. Neil worked alongside Dr Rice and the team to overcome their challenges and meet the necessary outcomes. Having worked with the world’s most innovative companies including Unilever, Electrolux and Philips, Neil brought thirty years of experience with him and supported the team in finding which stage of the funding process could work for them. As Dr Rice said: "Projects can flounder in no man's land because they are too-far developed to attract research funding but not developed enough to secure real market interest. When we heard about Design Council's programme for universities we were eager to get involved."

What we did

Together with Neil, the TTO examined the Heartlight project to see if potential development was possible. Neil ran a fully-facilitated application workshop, which included the participation of market researchers, designers, clinicians and technology transfer staff. This helped the team to identify 45 different uses for the Heartlight monitor, including products for fitness, sport, military, gaming and iPhone apps. The options were then rated according to likely payback time and market size. It was at this stage they struck on something vital.

Identifying a need

A display of the heartlight monitor

Every year in the UK, around 70,000 babies (1 in 10) are born needing some form of resuscitation. The longer a baby isn't breathing, the more risk there is of it developing brain damage or other long-term health problems. Research shows that improved resuscitation practice means improved outcomes for surviving babies.

Heartlight is small enough to sit on a baby’s head without needing to be held in place. Where previously midwives and doctors would need to stop resuscitation to calculate the baby’s heart rate, this device enables uninterrupted resuscitation. Through initial clinical trials, the device has been evaluated with more than 200 babies. It was then time to bring a design agency on board to create visualisations of their product ideas, an area the team had little experience in. Neil guided on identifying and assigning the right design agency. “By mentoring the team through the process of working with external agencies - briefing, understanding how to critique concepts, how to manage the process, what they expect to pay, etc - they were equipped to commission excellent design work to visualise their brilliant ideas,” said Neil. “If it wasn't for the Design Council scheme we simply wouldn't have engaged with the design industry at all. Now we want design skills embedded in our office, starting with a designer in residence," said Dr Rice.  

Design specialists Small Fry were the agency appointed to provide vital tools in demonstrating the worth of the new technology to potential investors.

Results

The University itself invested and the project also raised £1.6m from the Biomedical Catalyst Fund to take the opportunity all the way to market.

The new form for the Heartlight project attracted £125,000 worth of funding from the charity Action Medical Research, and a further £250,000 from the Medical Research Council. “In working with the likes of Neil, we realised that if we started making all of our projects more visible for an external environment, we’d probably get more interaction from companies, investors and the general public. They understand much better what we’re doing now," Dr Rice said. 

A separate project on which Neil and the team worked was able to raise new venture capital funding where it had previously failed in application purely because they enhanced the way they communicated the technology. "We drilled down into what was good about it, and that gave us a compelling story to tell. When we went back a second time there was no questions asked and we won the money straight away," Dr Rice said.   

From the programme we learned that a small amount of design investment at the start of the project will eventually lead to a pretty big return on investment.

Dr Mark Grubb, University of Nottingham

The University has now built a demonstrator, says Dr Rice. “As a result of our work with Design Council, you can come and see our latest 30 inventions coming out of the University in early prototype form; you can tell us what you think of them and we’ll build that into our development process. The profile of what we’re doing as a Technology Transfer Office is really going up because we’ve used a bit of design thinking in the way we’re doing technology transfer.” This was emphasised by Dr Mark Grubb, who said: "From the programme we learned that a small amount of design investment at the start of the project will eventually lead to a pretty big return on investment."

“Introducing a strategic design approach into what we do is having a significant impact across a growing number of projects as we move them toward market.” said Dr George Rice. As a result of this activity, the University has built such an impressive evidence base in all of the commercial opportunities around the platform, that a local company – a consumer electronics manufacturer in Derby – signed up for a joint venture to commercialise a pipeline of opportunities. The University itself invested, and the project also raised £1.6m from the Biomedical Catalyst Fund (Innovate UK) to take the opportunity all the way to market.

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