he stereotypical image of a med-tech start-up company is one we are all familiar with: a group of passionate, creative and often tee-shirted entrepreneurs working into the early hours of the morning, desperately trying to get a prototype ready for a critical demo. After several failed attempts, the team has a ‘eureka’ moment and everything slots into place – including the development and production of the product. The rest is, as they say, history.

The stereotypical image of a med-tech start-up company is one we are all familiar with: a group of passionate, creative and often tee-shirted entrepreneurs working into the early hours of the morning, desperately trying to get a prototype ready for a critical demo. After several failed attempts, the team has a ‘eureka’ moment and everything slots into place – including the development and production of the product. The rest is, as they say, history.

All too often the reality is rather different. The entrepreneurs may discover that development plans that had once seemed clear-cut start to prove unrealistic. Tough questions have to be asked. When will the first customers be able to trial this technology? Will it even work effectively in the clinical environment? Are these early designs and prototypes suitable for mass-production? If the product has to be modified, can the current budget cover the necessary development work?

The investors may also have concerns. Their entrepreneurs may be brilliant people, but will they be capable of taking this idea all the way through to market? Have they considered every aspect of the technology and the production, or will it prove too costly to mass-produce?

Many promising start-up companies stumble and fall at these early hurdles, but for medical start-up company PneumaCare this was not the case. Its approach was different from the very beginning: it saw an urgent clinical need, and developed a product to meet it. Established in 2009 by a group of budding entrepreneurs and clinicians, PneumaCare created a revolutionary concept based on 3D imaging technology developed with the University of Cambridge, the PneumaScan™. This low cost, non‐contact platform for lung function assessment is based on motion-capture technology, light scanning, and image processing. This medical device is a radical improvement on the traditional methods of monitoring lung function, which can be uncomfortable for patients and are associated with the risk of infection.

PneumaCare’s different way of doing things did not stop at the concept stage. Its aim was always to meet a need, translate a good idea into a profitable product, and get it into clinics to benefit patients as swiftly as possible. Consequently, rather than going it alone, PneumaCare made the decision to enlist the help of local design consultancy Plextek. As well as contributing extensive expertise on product development, Plextek’s considerable experience of getting a product into the hands of the customers – and knowledge of avoiding potential pitfalls – was invaluable. Plextek was of immense assistance in guiding PneumaCare through the operational, commercial and technical challenges faced by start-up companies.

Initially Plextek worked closely with the team at PneumaCare to streamline the design process and then to help develop the technology. Working with a design consultancy meant PneumaCare was spared the need to invest time and money into setting up design and quality control processes, could divert these resources to focus on refining the product and software, and concentrate on the development pipeline.

PneumaCare capitalised on Plextek’s skills in management and engineering, and its ability to identify and respond to changing business requirements. Plextek’s expertise in product manufacture meant that production was a key consideration from the outset, with the objective of reducing the risk of costly design changes and thus minimising the unit cost. The necessary regulatory requirements were considered and factored in early in the process, again streamlining costs and processes. Working with Plextek, PneumaCare was able to get the PneumaScan™ to market first time and within budget.

From start-up to success

As a result of the partnership between Plextek and PneumaCare, the PneumaScan™ was being used in clinics within 12 months of the first prototype being trialled. Highly portable and simple to operate, the PneumaScan™ makes it is possible for staff in GP surgeries and hospitals to monitor and assess the lung function of even the most vulnerable groups, including babies, intensive care patients, the elderly and post-surgical patients – all of whom find standard assessment difficult or sometimes impossible.

"Plextek has played a key role in catalysing our journey from concept to working prototype cost-effectively and in a very rapid timeframe,’ says Dr Ward Hills, PneumaCare’s CEO. ‘Working with Plextek has given us instant access to a large pool of specialist knowledge and electronics design experience, which has accelerated our progress and given us a strong commercial basis."

Since Plextek’s involvement, PneumaCare has gained CE marking approval for its first product. It also won the award for the Best Business Proposition in the Respiratory Category as well as the overall award for Best Business Proposition at the Medical Futures Innovations Awards 2011. More importantly, for customers and investors alike, PneumaCare now has the track record of delivering, on time and on budget.

Dr Colin Smithers, Plextek’s Managing Director, comments: "PneumaCare is a very exciting start-up with a truly innovative concept and enormous commercial potential. We are delighted that our skills, knowledge and experience are helping the company on its road to success and that we will be continuing to play a pivotal role as it moves forward."

Plextek has been contracted to provide further assistance as PneumaCare expands the commercialisation of the concept and explores other potential applications. At the appropriate time, Plextek will also provide volume manufacturing.

"This has been a fruitful partnership,’ Ward Hills sums up. ‘And as we move into the next phases for new product development and marketing, we’ll continue to benefit from Plextek’s first class design skills and business advice."