News and Media

The eyes have it

By Liz Hands, Contact Magazine

Richard Kirk admits to being very ambitious, but then again which CEO isn’t? He’s also, by all accounts, something of an adrenaline junkie.

“I’m very passionate about mountaineering and climbing,” he says. “It’s my obsession, my mid-life crisis. I put off doing the proper stuff while my kids were younger because the kind of climbing I do is quite risky. I’ll definitely be in the Himalayas next year.”

He tells a tale of taking a bunch of guys walking in the Alps. “I told them it would be fine, we weren’t going anywhere you could fall off, but one of them fell over and dislocated his shoulder. It was a bit precarious – we had to get him down 500 metres so the air ambulance could land. Going for a walk turned into being air-lifted off a mountain.”

No wonder then that Kirk needs to be in a business which is really going places to feel fulfilled. His firm, PolyPhotonix in Sedgefield, Co Durham, has developed a revolutionary eye mask which uses light to treat diabetic retinopathy, which can lead to blindness. Established in 2008, the company is turning over just shy of £700,000 and will tip into millions next year. “We’re on that hockey stick-shaped trajectory,” he says. “We can see where we’re going and the sales.”

Kirk is fascinated by light and its applications. A former artist who now splits his time between homes in Hutton Rudby in North Yorkshire and London, he had “that real garret experience” in Paris.

“My first studio was someone’s spare bedroom on Rue Saint Denis in the Paris red light district,” he says. “I had an art dealer in Berlin and in Paris. I was selling to national collections in France and I had good international shows in Australia, New Zealand, and the
United States.”

Yet Kirk says he was never going to make the A-grade. And, too ambitious to settle for second best, he moved back to England with his French wife Virginie and their two children, Morganne, now 22, and Tom, now 20. “I met somebody in a bar in Soho who showed me a piece of first-generation printed electronics,” he says. “It was a piece of paper that lit up when you put a battery next to it. We take that kind of thing for granted now, but at the time I was blown away.”

That chance meeting inspired him to launch Elumin8, an electroluminescent (EL) manufacturing company. Over six years, it became the most successful printed electronic company in Europe, installing the likes of the EL wall for British Airways at Heathrow and putting technology into metro stations around the world. The firm was exporting digital posters as far afield as Australia, South Africa, China, America and Canada.

But Kirk realised the company had a ceiling on what it could achieve. So, reaching an agreement to part ways with the other business directors, it was onto the next challenge.

He was invited to join the advisory board when the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) was being set up on Sedgefield’s NETPark. He came to an agreement to partner with CPI and that was the start of PolyPhotonix.

At that point, however, he wasn’t 100% certain of the products PolyPhotonix would manufacture or enable.

“I knew I didn’t want it to be a lifestyle business,” he explains. “I wanted it to be something that was very scaleable and I wanted to do something significant. Rather than a business turning over a few million, I wanted a business that could turn over hundreds of millions.”

Starting off with a business plan to develop a process to “make cool lighting,” Kirk realised he was on the wrong course. “The technological challenges couldn’t be met in a timeframe we could fund,” he says. “There were a number of very large companies like LG and Philips already on the case. At best, we could have ended up stimulating and creating a market that they would have followed us into and dominated.”

Instead, he started to attend a lot of conferences, looking for the right application for his technology. “I met someone who’d been doing ground-breaking research into the mechanism of dark adaptation of the eye and everything clicked into place.”

PolyPhotonix started to fund clinical research more than four years ago, but the trials are only just coming to publication.

“We’ve been on a journey we kept extremely quiet,” he says. “We kept it hush-hush because we’re dealing with something that’s very emotive. We don’t want to over promise. You can’t say you’re going to cure blindness for certain diseases and then not do it, and we also kept quiet for competitive reasons.”

Now, though, PolyPhotonix is finally able to shout about its work. Its treatment for diabetic retinopathy is on the market now to challenge a common complication of diabetes – high blood sugar levels damaging the retina, potentially leading to blindness.

Current treatments for advanced stages of the condition are injection therapy or laser surgery, which are invasive and expensive. Kirk says PolyPhotonix’s solution is more efficacious and more cost-effective. Independent analysis, he says, has found it could save the NHS £1bn.

Patients wear a mask which uses light therapy while they sleep to treat the condition. Clinical trials have already proven the success of the treatment and research is ongoing, with around 35 NHS hospitals currently using the masks for patients. PolyPhotonix is also running small commercial trials in the North East for private patients.

Kirk, who has won a raft of awards since going public with his work, is also able to announce the development of a treatment for wet age-related macular degeneration (WET AMD).

Anything else the firm is developing has to remain top secret. What is clear is that Kirk and PolyPhotonix are going places.

Just don’t agree to go for a walk up a hill with him.

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