MOVER & SHAKER – RICHARD KIRK
There was no eureka moment. Richard Kirk didn’t just suddenly discover a cure to prevent some forms of blindness. It was the result of years of painstaking research and cumulative business experience. Yet the former artist turned medical pioneer can claim to have founded a company that has revolutionised eye care treatment for diabetics and the elderly, both in the UK and potentially the world.
Richard is full of fascinating anecdotes about how his early life as a painter helped mould him into the person he is today. ‘In essence I was a painter until about 15 years ago,’ he explains. ‘I lived in Paris and for a while I had a pretty good career. As a very hard edge abstract painter I’d always had the ambition to contribute to the general force of modernism but as you mature you realise that you’re probably just not that good.
‘I was getting frustrated with the whole art world and I moved back to London. I was in Soho drinking in the afternoon, because you can when you’re an artist, and I met a man in a bar who showed me a bit of very early technology. It was a piece of plastic that illuminated when you put a battery next to it. Fifteen years ago that was really quite mind-boggling. I had an epiphany in the pub and thought, “This is absolutely fantastic, I’m sure I can do something with this.” I spoke to some friends, raised some money, and created a company called Elumin8, and that was the transition from artist to physicist.’
I get the measure of Richard, the artist turned savvy businessman, as he talks in some detail about his first company Elumin8, which led to the creation of his next company PolyPhotonix. The Government-funded CPI (Centre For Process Innovation) in Sedgefield is effectively the company’s laboratory. ‘When they were building that they invited me to join the advisory board,’ he tells me. ‘While it was being built I was thinking, “I could put a business here,” and in effect, to a physicist, it was a sweet shop full of world class equipment that we had access to. So from day one we were able to do incredibly advanced research, prototyping and testing without having to go out and invest £40 million, which was a huge advantage.’
Having modestly denied any eureka moment earlier in the interview, Richard now explains that there was a minor epiphany. ‘I was at a conference listening to some very eminent professors talk about a certain pathology for macular eye disease and I realised that the OLEDS (organic light emitting diodes) that we were making had certain properties that would lend themselves to this brilliantly. That was a very small eureka moment as that then led to years of proving it.
‘When we started out on this journey the NHS, who are now one of our biggest funders and research partners, thought it was loopy. Here we are now five years later having taken in £14 million of government research grants and we’ve pretty much put biophotonics on the map. The fact is we’re made of carbon; we react to light and we see that when we go out on a sunny day and get a tan. We’re harnessing those effects, and understanding them in a way that no one’s ever done before.
‘We understood we could have a treatment for an eye disease called diabetic retinopathy, one of the most common causes of blindness in the western world, caused by diabetes. The diabetic problem is out of control: 280,000 people every year are diagnosed with diabetes in the UK, that’s the population of Newcastle. What people don’t realise is just what a dangerous disease it is, it shortens your life and creates all manner of problems including loss of sight. About 90 percent of Type One diabetics will develop retinopathy and almost two thirds of Type Twos will develop it. So we now have a situation where hundreds of thousands of people are on a pathway to blindness.’
It’s a bleak picture that Richard paints, and NHS treatments are failing to reverse the symptoms. ‘There are some interventions in the UK that the NHS do,’ Richard explains, ‘but laser intervention which is very common damages the photoreceptors and after a few laser interventions you actually lose peripheral eyesight and then you lose your driving licence so you’re in a whole new world of pain. The other intervention is an intraocular injection, an injection directly into the eye that’s repeated every six weeks or so, that’s costing the NHS about £6,500 per eye, per year; their costs are ballooning out of control.’
This is where PolyPhotonix comes in with the Noctura 400 mask, worn when the sufferer is asleep, which Richard explained to us (warning, things get a little technical here). When the eye goes to sleep at night its oxygen requirement doubles so the body starts creating new vessel growth in the macula (a thin layer of light-sensitive tissue that lines the back of the eye). If you’re aged or diabetic this new vessel growth is compromised. The vessel walls will start to break down and leak, leading to miniature strokes in the back of the eye. This in turn leads to blindness. By wearing a mask which puts light into your eye in a certain way, the hypoxic state (oxygen starvation) is prevented. The clever bit is that the mask is configured in such a way that when light is put into the eye, the cone, which is what you use in the daytime, doesn’t see it, so it doesn’t inhibit sleep.
‘We can treat patients who have early onset, but we’ve also had remarkable results with people who are already getting laser treatment and injections,’ Richard explains. ‘We’re able to halt the condition in its path and in many cases actually get a reversal, so it’s a genuine treatment. We can’t work miracles, if people’s eyes have been bad for years the damage is already there. But if we catch it in time we can stop it progressing, and, in many cases, get a measurable improvement.’
To say that the Noctura mask is a game changer is an understatement of some proportion. With over 102 million people with diabetic retinopathy in the world the drugs that are currently used as treatment have a cumulative value of about £6.5 billion. With nothing in line to harness diabetes, Richard explains that it’s a great business opportunity for PolyPhotonix and the company has the opportunity to go global.
As a keen mountaineer, scaling heights on the North York Moors on a summer’s evening is one of Richard’s chief hobbies. But it’s his business that’s scaled an insurmountable problem and reached a celebratory pinnacle, raising the flag of victory when it comes to a revolutionary invention that offers hope to those who would otherwise face inevitable blindness.