Building commercial confidence in engineering innovations

retinaMy son Leif was five years old when he went blind in his left eye. This was because a detached retina was not detected soon enough. At the time, ophthalmologists were restricted to using equipment that was quite uncomfortable for patients, especially children, which made diagnosing life-changing ophthalmological problems like this extremely difficult.

In response, I set out to develop a fast, non-intrusive whole retina scanner that could easily be used – even on children. Although I didn’t know anything about optics, I come from a background in CT scanners and ultrasound product development, and was determined to solve the problem.

To begin with, it was difficult to attract investment as the venture was deemed too radical. Movement towards technology in the health sector however eventually meant we raised enough to get off the ground, and by 2000 we had developed our first iteration of the retina scanner. It took eight years, but we had developed a more comfortable imaging system and also an affordable subscription service for professionals, making it accessible for use.

By 2006 we had grown, with 1,000 systems out in the field, analysing over six million patients across three countries. As such, it was a great honour for Optos plc to win the Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award.  The Award recognises excellence in engineering innovation and commercial success, as well as benefit to society; as such, it confirmed our confidence in the venture.

The prestige of winning the UK’s longest-running national prize for engineering innovation, along with the personal roots of the project, added an extra dimension to the business case for our listing when Optos plc went public a year later. Potential investors and patients could see that we were a commercially viable business that was tackling a real challenge in the field of opthalmology.

Leif and Douglas Anderson today.

By 2015, uptake of our device had grown further, with 6,500 systems in use across 60 countries. We had also improved our system, so it was 66% more effective at identifying problems than traditional methods. At this time the clinical evidence for the device also started to show, with 74 clinical papers published the same year, spanning 88 academic institutions and 19 countries. This all culminated in the company being bought by Nikon for £259 million – the largest amount ever spent on medical imaging by the Japanese company.

The long-term business impact of our Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award win was highly significant for Optos plc, and now we have around 13,000 systems in operation worldwide. This was added to the personal experience of having the Academy’s Senior Fellow, HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, asking to try out the retinal scanner at the Award ceremony – which I will never forget. If you are an engineer, in any discipline, and have developed a successful innovation that has benefited society, do consider applying for this year’s award.

Dr Douglas Anderson OBE FREng FRS, is founder of Optos plc, and winner of the 2006 Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award.

The 2018 MacRobert Award finalists will be announced in May, with the overall winner revealed at the Royal Academy of Engineering Awards Dinner on 27 June.