What do you want to get out of your PhD? To prolong your student days before having to get serious in life, contribute something useful to your field, publish good papers, land that dream job… All valid reasons! But what if one day, you stumbled across something in your research that could actually solve a real life problem when converted into a product? It happened to Robert Coultous, Demelza Kingston, and Alexandra Raftery – who subsequently pitched their idea at the UofG MVLS Science Den Competition and came out of the Dragon’s Den victorious!
The team are all experienced veterinary surgeons that specialise in equine infectious diseases. Especially in the developing world there are many families that critically depend on horses, donkeys, and mules as working animals. Unfortunately, these equids are at risk for two blood-borne parasitic diseases that can cause severe illness and even death – which causes suffering for the animal, but also has huge economic consequences for the people relying on them. The problem is that these two distinct parasites cause exactly the same symptoms, but they need to be treated in entirely different ways. It is therefore essential to figure out which parasite the animal is suffering from, but there is currently no fast, accurate, and affordable approach to diagnose them. Until now, as Robert, Demelza, and Alexandra designed a microfluidics-based chip that does just that! Their invention is a low-cost, disposable, and low-tech device that can provide an accessible and effective diagnosis with huge potential impact. This must have impressed the jury, as they were awarded the MVLS Science Den prize for the “Best Biological Tool”!
The MVLS Science Den was held at the Glasgow Science Centre on February 16. Photos by UofG.
I caught up with team leader Robert Coultous to get the inside scoop on the team’s success and future plans. I was especially curious whether the idea for their product came to them first, or whether they always had a burning desire to take part in business competitions and develop a spin-out? Robert explains: ‘Initially, the idea was just the result of some post-work pub chat – we knew there was a need for better diagnostics for these diseases, and we all agreed that it would be nice if that could change. Then, like most pub musings, it was simply left at that! However, seeing the adverts for the Science Den Competition got us all thinking again. After some literature research and chatting with potential collaborators and consumers through our networks, we put together an idea that might just work and submitted our entry. Things just sort of escalated from there!’
Of course I can see how we all talk crazy ideas in a pub every now and again, but actually developing such an idea into a real product is another matter! As the team are all vets and some are pursuing their PhDs, they must be incredibly busy already. What inspired them to just take a leap and pursue this idea regardless? Robert explains that there was certainly some extra time and effort needed. ‘The fact is that the goal of our product, providing better diagnosis for equine parasitic diseases, is something we’re all genuinely passionate about. This really helped. Ultimately it was “nothing ventured, nothing gained”, so we just gave it a shot. We were very fortunate to win as there was some strong competition from the other teams – the judges really had their work cut out with such a variety of innovative and inspiring ideas!’
Demelza, Robert, and Alexandra with judge Dr Carol Clugston, Chief Operating Officer/Director of Professional Services at MVLS. Photos by UofG.
As you can tell from the picture, the competition’s prize money was £10,000. What will this prize enable the team to do in terms of turning their idea into a real product that can be brought to market? ‘For us, the prize money will allow us to move from a concept idea to a working prototype. We are pitching and competing for further funding, but the Science Den winnings have given us a strong footing on the ladder.’
The team never actually expected to swoop up the top prize, so would they seriously consider a career as entrepreneurs if their product would take off, or was it just a great experience during their PhD studies? Robert says: ‘As for the future, we still have a long way to go, but as a team we are all committed to trying to make the project work. The MVLS Science Den experience has spurred us on to enter other competitions, such as the Converge Challenge, where we’re competing in the KickStart category. We are focusing on moving the project forward, which will put us in a stronger position to attract future investors. The most important thing I’ve learned through these competitions and building a company from scratch is a focus on the final customer. We can all have good ideas, but doing the market research to ensure there is an actual want and need for your product is essential. Despite previously thinking that business was a totally alien field, we also learned that the process is actually not that different in principle from that of clinical work or research – turns out we had more transferable skills than we realised!’
Some final words of recommendation for other PGRs that may consider venturing into the world of innovation and entrepreneurship? ‘Our main recommendation – just do it. We never dreamed we’d be where we are now before entering the Science Den Competition, so don’t let those coffee break chats and pub ideas go to waste!’
If you’re curious to follow the team’s development, you can find them on Twitter and Facebook. Want to know more about entrepreneurship for PGRs? Check out my previous blog on Starting Up and remember that UofG offers support through the Student Enterprise Office.