Sensor technology pioneer Owlstone has doubled its Cambridge Science Park space and launched a recruitment campaign for 17 new UK hires to handle major defence contracts for the US and Taiwan. The company is also expanding its capability in the medical sensor field and is close to sealing multi-million pound funding from several sources as its technology proves increasingly successful in detecting cancers and other diseases. Co-founder Billy Boyle said the medical-military mix was being topped up by contracts in the world of industry and demonstrated the wisdom of a multi-faceted growth strategy.
The company started out 10 years ago targeting homeland defence markets as its sensor can detect explosives. But Boyle and co-founders Andrew Koehl and David Ruiz-Alonso decided that with long government procurement timelines it would be sensible to expand potential applications for its dime-sized detector. Boyle said the new military deals with a US government department and a Taiwanese customer were not only financing the upsurge in Cambridge jobs but also allowing the business to probe fresh frontiers in the medical arena.
Owlstone s new medical division has developed a cancer breathalyser which has progressed through alliances with research and academic partners. Life science researchers are increasingly finding that specific chemical compounds are present in the breath or bodily fluids of people with certain medical conditions, such as TB, cancers or diabetes. This suggested a new way of diagnosing these diseases early without the need for costly and invasive medical procedures Owlstone s sensor can simply test for the presence of these tell-tale chemicals.
Funded by an SBRI Healthcare development contract, Owlstone has also been conducting research into the diagnosis of lung cancer by measuring volatile organic compounds in patients’ exhaled breath. Phase I of the project is complete and the application process for funding for Phase II is underway. Boyle said early lung cancer detection through screening had the potential to save 10,000 lives and the NHS 245 million within three years of launch.
And in a joint project with Warwick University and University Hospital Coventry and Warwick, utilising funding from the Technology Strategy Board, Owlstone has been seeking a means to diagnose inflammatory bowel disease using its Lonestar detector. Boyle said that initial results from one of the techniques, after software analysis, had demonstrated great potential as a rapid diagnosis method, with promising sensitivity, selectivity obtained in a non-invasive test. At present, chemical analysis of breath is usually performed in a laboratory, using large, expensive and relatively slow mass spectrometry-based equipment.
Lonestar is a less expensive, ion mobility spectrometry-based system that is already small enough to deploy in doctors surgeries. The nanotechnology solution provides results in minutes so has the potential to revolutionise patients healthcare experiences, Boyle said. Owlstone has put its nano-detectors in the hands of researchers and academics across the UK and internationally for example, in Amsterdam, Florida, Miami and Australia and Boyle reports not only positive feedback from the partner community but also huge interest in the technology.
Boyle said: We are making good progress towards significant fundraising we re talking many millions of pounds. We are pretty far down the pipeline with discussions but until those signatures are on paper and the cash is in the bank we won t be tempting fate. What I will say is that in the medical field it is a hundred times better to be funded by the Government and industry for projects than to use venture capital.
Government and industry partners are focused on their objectives and how our technology can help hit those targets so the whole process is technology and patient focused rather than financial. All Owlstone s R & D is handled in Cambridge hence the urgent need for more engineers while the Connecticut topco deals with sales and commercial functions. Forty of the 46 or so staff are in Cambridge before the 17 new technicians, managers and engineers are recruited.
The Owlstone Cambridge staff work on innovation across all the three main segments defence & military, medical and industrial. Boyle said the medical side of the business was proving especially attractive to staff. I am not decrying apps or gaming technology which must be a lot of fun to work on and give pleasure to millions of people but to work on a device that can detect disease so early and help save people s lives while sparing them a lot of indignity and pain is proving extremely rewarding for our people.
Asia is on the radar as a long-term market but the US continues to provide bread, butter and jam. When we set up we targeted the US from Day One, said Boyle. Homeland defence was the obvious first target market for our sensor but we have expanded into industrial applications for the detector in the US, such as in oil & gas in addition to the military contracts.
Companies are still pumping oil and need to check the quality of the product and our technology does that. The range of applications for the technology justifies our strategy from the day we started 10 years ago. We looked at the procurement process and timelines for military and security contracts and realised we couldn t just sit on our hands waiting for the next opportunity to come up.
We had to live. We never wanted a model where we shot from zero turnover to $50m, say, on the back of one or two contracts in one sector. We wanted to spread the opportunity and the risk.
But we also knew and this has been borne out throughout our 10 years to date that America set the pace in pretty much most markets we were likely to become involved in. We had the sense that even the MoD watches what Uncle Sam does first before implementing new defence technology. That s why the US remains our No.1 target market.
Boyle and his co-founders all Cambridge University alumni are personally thrilled that they have been able to manage the growth of the company from a predominantly Cambridge R & D base, even though the parent is in the States. Boyle said: Finding the right skills is always a challenge in a technology hotspot such as Cambridge but we can t think of a better place to start and build a business such as ours. It is particularly exciting to see the new generation of young entrepreneurs coming though in Cambridge.
The app and software specialists now have the technological tools required to build a product, develop it into a business and engage with customers. It frees them up to focus on the core product and business and not have to worry so much about raising big chunks of angel or VC finance at the outset. Owlstone is casting the recruitment net UK-wide and internationally for the current crop of jobs and Boyle believes there will be more opportunities in the pipeline.
For now the company is seeking reliability, firmware, manufacturing, mechanical & mechanical design, electronics, systems and software engineers as well as analytical chemists, project managers and data analysts.
Details are at http://www.owlstonenanotech.com/company/careers 1 References ^ Owlstone website (www.owlstonenanotech.com)