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Sight defender Richard raises hopes of millions

By Brian Nicholls for BQ magazine.

When electioneering’s over, and the National Health Service is less a battlefield again, emphasis may return to achievements rather than shortcomings. The significance of Richard Kirk’s recent contribution to our institution will then be even more widely recognised.

His sight-saving technology has won him the title North East BQ Emerging Entrepreneur 2015. Now he’ll contest BQ’s National Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year title, to be awarded at MADE, The Entrepreneur Festival 2015 in Sheffield this October.

By then some of Britain’s 2.8m diabetics should be benefiting from the Noctura 400® mask which Kirk’s company PolyPhotonix has developed at Sedgefield to treat, with light therapy, diabetic retinopathy, a disease that diabetes inflicts, causing one of the Western World’s most common incidences of blindness.

Worn over the eyes during sleep hours, and used as part of an individually monitored ophthalmic treatment, the Noctura 400® is confidently expected to replace costly current treatments, such as laser eye surgery and drug injections into the eye. And the saving to the NHS could be £1bn, a figure cheering surely to all the squabbling politicians who’ve been arguing the toss about the service’s cost.

A most remarkable breakthrough too, considering Kirk had no early scientific experience but was an artist in Paris 15 years ago – a very able one too, with works in national collections.

On moving to London, his attitude to art changed. “I became receptive to thoughts about a new direction,” he says. During a casual meeting in a Soho pub, he was shown a fragment of electroluminescent material, which lit up on battery power. “I was intrigued,” he recalls. “So much, I embarked on a journey that has culminated in developing medical devices to treat some of the most common causes of blindness.’’

So today the gifted painter is a scientist showing the qualities of an entrepreneur – strong leadership and self-belief, fuelled by a will to succeed. His perseverance and ability to overcome challenges and adversity are also evident, not least in securing financial backing and countering medical scepticism.

PolyPhotonix (PPX), which Kirk founded in 2009, works from the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) in Sedgefield and has two divisions. The bio-photonic one is developing the treatments for macular eye disease (among other medical applications).

The other division is researching and developing in organic chemistry OLED (organic light emitting diodes), seeking solutions to manufacture organic electronic devices on a large scale.

He’s chief executive, in short, of a company that in five years has grown from one person with an idea to an outstanding innovative business employing 22 highly skilled people, and likely to grow to 52 within two years. A £7m sum recently secured should bring about a headquarters and manufacturing plant at NETPark by the end of 2016.

Last October, PPX launched a pilot test of the Noctura 400 through numerous optometrists in the North East of England and also through The Outside Clinic, a large national optometry firm. Noctura 400, also researched early on at Liverpool University, has since been in late stage trial at 28 NHS hospital clinics with more than 100,000 hours of recorded use. The mask has been approved by a clinical commissioning group for the NHS, which is expected to introduce it more widely about now.

Kirk has enjoyed earlier commercial triumph. “Within a few years,” he relates, “I created the largest printed electronics company in Europe, with sales in 12 countries. I sponsored over 40 artists and designers to create works showing the potential of this technology, and the company achieved many world firsts – British Airways’ first class lounge at Heathrow and the Radisson Wine Tower at Stansted Airport being two.”

Now, he says, PPX has a robust supply chain with CE certification and ISO 13485 approval, and with capacity to treat 2m patients a year, promising an £800m-plus turnover.

The main reason to root PPX in the North East has been the presence at NETPark, Sedgefield, of the National Printable Electronics Centre, one of several technology centres the CPI runs.

NETPark is the science park where innovative ideas can become profitmakers. Kirk says it would have been difficult to progress PPX elsewhere, given the facilities available there throughout – including resources, materials and access to the “right kind of people”, all prohibitively expensive under any other system, in Kirk’s view.

The original purpose of PPX as a joint venture was to create sustainable, high volume OLED manufacturing, OLED being then a largely unknown technology. Kirk recalls: “I created PPX with a £3.2m TSB grant to develop the OLED process. I realised the challenges of manufacturing OLEDs were more than the capability available to the UK’s business and technology community.

So I renegotiated terms of the funding. I investigated applications to fit their relatively simple performance characteristics – short life, low luminance, relatively expensive. This was in contrast to consensus research and investment being directed towards lighting applications.”

Since then, PPX has won support from numerous UK government bodies to fund the development and clinical trials for projects with a cumulative value beyond £14m. Potential global revenue is now put at excess of £6bn a year, the Noctura sleep mask being, in Kirk’s words, “twice as efficacious at treating the conditions rather than slowing the progress of the diseases.”

Kirk thinks global. A few years ago he developed a not-for-profit company while teaching at Harvard University. Funded by the World Bank, it was based around generating electricity from waste for African markets.

Today the World Health Organisation puts the current number of diabetics worldwide at 350m, likely to reach 500m by 2020. The UK total could reach 5.5m by 2020, given that currently more than 280,000 people a year – the equivalent of Newcastle’s population – are diagnosed with diabetes.

One commercial challenge Kirk has had to clear with Noctura 400 arose before success of clinical trials was assured. Scepticism within the medical sector, implying bio-photonics is a pseudo-science, deterred a number of investors hoping for short-term returns. The firm had to work hard to win its funding.

Kirk explains: “I created a powerful advisory board of significant, credible influencers in ophthalmology, including trustees from Moorfields Eye Hospital and senior professors. I then had to create evidence through trials and research. I managed to match private equity funding of around £1m to £14m in ‘peer’ reviewed grant support.

“I’ve also cultivated a close and transparent relationship with the NHS. This allows us to work on sales strategy parallel with the clinical programme, enabling us to cut the usual time to introduce a MedTech device into the NHS from up to 10 years to little over three.”

Kirk himself sits on a ministerial medical technology steering group, and is re-assured by central government and ministers often citing PPX as an example in how to drive UK innovation.

Lord Adonis’ policy paper on innovation mentions only PPX, and a Herman Hauser review of Catapults commissioned by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills last December cited PPX as a prime example of excellence in innovation.

He says it’s not only a great delight to have won the North East BQ Emerging Entrepreneur award, but a great recognition also of the strength and calibre of the PolyPhotonix team. It joins many other awards, including a national business award from the Institute of Chemical Engineering, an Astra Zeneca global award, an award from the Institute of Engineering and Technology, an RTC award, and a Made in the North East award.

PPX has also been working with seven universities on 12 projects in the UK and abroad. As for Kirk, the High Value Manufacturing Catapult recently nominated him as European Inventor of the Year, and his appearance in The Manufacturer’s top 100 most influential manufacturers puts him alongside leading role models.

While PPX takes on apprentices at different levels – one of whom recently gained a degree in electrical engineering – around 70% of the employees hold a PhD, hence continual sparking of innovative ideas.

“We are specialists in technology who surround ourselves with experts from end-user markets,” Kirk explains. “We use our expertise to bridge the gap between research and commercialisation.

“Often we meet with academics in unrelated fields to try to create a culture of ‘organised serendipity.’ It’s great to get physicists, medics and biologists – all at the top of their game – together in one room to spark ideas off each other. His open access environment recently led to development of a new therapy for age-related macular degeneration, which gained full grant application within three weeks of initial conversation.

Says Kirk: “Increasingly we find our areas of research are new to science and produce genuine insights into the functional mechanisms of the body and how light affects it. This is creating many areas of scientific interest. Some of these we’re sharing with the academic community and some we’re developing in-house.”

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