News and Media

Business Interview: Richard Kirk, chief executive of PolyPhotonix

By Jez Davison, The Gazette

Maverick and self-confessed risk-taker Richard Kirk ditched his career as a successful artist to spearhead Teesside’s technology revival…

For several years Richard Kirk was a successful artist who flogged pseudo-modernist paintings in the cultural heart of Paris. Fast forward 15 years and he’s heading up an innovative tech business at Sedgefield-based NETPark, one of Teesside’s most prominent industrial hubs.

It’s a quirky change of career for an equally quirky character. And Richard is loving every minute of it.

As chief executive of PolyPhotonix, he’s at the forefront of pioneering technology that uses light to diagnose and treat a range of debilitating medical conditions. The company has developed a special sleep mask that could improve the quality of life of thousands of people with diabetic retinopathy, a condition that occurs when high blood sugar levels damage the cells at the back of the eye. If it isn’t treated, it can cause blindness.

Many years of research have gone into developing the product but now it’s time to turn ideas into hard cash. While PolyPhotonix has benefited from £14m of government grants since it was launched by Richard in 2008, turnover is predicted to hit £2m in 2015-16 and the potential for growth is huge. The global OLED lighting materials market in which the company operates is forecast to top $1.3bn (£0.85bn) by 2018, according to research by industry analyst NanoMarkets. Other sources suggest the figure could be much higher.

Teesside is set to play a prominent role in the sector, with NETPark soon to be the location for an £18m national healthcare photonics centre. Due to open in 2017, the facility will allow companies such as PolyPhotonix to pool ideas and resources, develop cutting-edge technologies and bring them to market.

Richard says: “The centre is great news for us and great news for Teesside. It will help us carry out further research into treatments for diseases such as diabetic retinopathy and macular eye degeneration. There are about 102 million people worldwide with diabetic retinopathy and our treatment has the potential to significantly reduce the cost of national care systems around the world – as much as £1bn a year.

“The science is there and the market potential is massive. We’re talking big numbers here.”

It’s the challenge – and the scale of financial reward – that clearly excites Richard. An ambitious, self-confessed risk-taker, he’s an accomplished strategist and very adept at seeing the big picture.

“It’s not quite kissing frogs but I’m a great believer that if you put yourself out there, opportunities will arise.”

He has certainly done that during a kaleidoscopic career that has spanned the vast arenas of science and art. After completing a fine arts degree in Dundee he spent several years as an artist in Paris and saw many of his works held in public and private collections around the world. That career not only gave him a comfortable living but also a thorough understanding of creative processes and the commercial potential of organic light. He moved to London in 1998 and became head of production at creative agency BBH before launching Elumin8, an electroluminescent (EL) manufacturing company, in 2001.

He built the firm, which made lighting products for the automotive and architectural sectors, into a £7m business with 38 staff before leaving in 2007. One year later he launched PolyPhotonix and since then he’s become a recognisable figure in his field.

A regular keynote speaker at international conferences on design and printed electronics, he sits on several advisory boards and was recently shortlisted as a finalist in BQ’s national Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year Awards.

While he’s willing to put his head above the parapet nationally and internationally, his main focus is to expand PolyPhotonix exponentially from its Teesside base. It is currently funding 13 projects in eight universities and looking at other medical applications that could be taken to market. In addition, Richard has created another side to the business which develops process solutions for large-scale manufacturing of organic electronic devices.

He says: “We’ve got the credentials to succeed; three quarters of our staff have PhDs. I enjoy life, I enjoy taking risks and Teesside is as good a place as any to grow a business like this.”

Who has inspired you most (could be real-life or public figure)?
My dad Frank – a self-made man who was made redundant in his 40s but still came back to become an international sales director.

Biggest achievement (personal or professional)?
Bringing up my kids.

What car do you drive?
A BMW seven series – but I don’t like it! It’s way too sensible and doesn’t have enough flair.

What’s your favourite restaurant?
Brasserie Georges in Lyon, France.

Favourite tipple?
A glass of dry Martini.

Favourite book?
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.

Who or what makes you laugh?
Classic comedies.

What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?
A mountain guide in the Alps.

What’s your greatest fear?
Caving – I don’t like enclosed spaces.

What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
Surround yourself with the best talent and you have a recipe for success.

And the worst?
I tend not to remember bad advice – I just dismiss it.

What’s your business mantra?
Take a few risks, be a maverick.

How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
I got about £6.50 for delivering leaflets on the Champ Elysees. Trying not to get run over was the biggest challenge!

What’s your biggest extravagance?
Holidays in the Alps.

How do you relax and unwind?
Socialising with friends.

Where is your favourite Teesside place?
Hutton Rudby which is where I live.

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