Richard Kirk, CEO and chief technical officer of medical tech company PolyPhotonix, does not possess a PHD in physics, mathematics, chemistry, medicine or any other science-related field. Instead, he studied painting at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee, Scotland, and spent his twenties and early thirties working as a professional artist – initially in Australia before moving to France, where he was based for seven years.
From his small studio in the notorious Quartier Pigalle area in Paris, Richard’s modernist artworks attracted the attention of an art collector who began buying his work.
Soon, museums and the National Foundation were buying Richard’s art and, after a number of sell-out shows, he looked to be on a trajectory to become a famed artist.
But as Richard explains, this golden period wasn’t to last and after relocating from Paris to London in 1998 with his French wife and two young children, he began to realise his professional art career was coming to an end.
Richard reflects: “To sustain a level of creativity long term is very difficult and I realised that, while I had enjoyed some success, I wasn’t on the journey to a stellar career.
“The decision to stop being an artist didn’t come easily. In fact, it took around two years to work it through but after this, I started becoming more receptive to new opportunities.”
The opportunity that was to completely change Richard’s life came to him in an unlikely place.
One afternoon, while sitting in the The Blue Posts pub in London’s Soho, the by-then former artist starting talking to a stranger who showed him a malleable piece of plastic that lit up when a battery was put to it.
“We’re pretty used to seeing illuminating substrates now but 16 years ago, it was it was unheard of,” says Richard. “I thought it was amazing and it was in that pub – with three or four pints inside me – that I decided to create a company dedicated to this incredible technology.”
Richard began to research the world of printed electronics and discovered that major names such as Kodak and DuPont were already developing early generation light-emitting devices (LED).
He also found a small company in the South of England that was developing similar technology and after meeting its founders, decided to form a partnership. The new company was named Elumin8 and, within a couple of years, it was exporting its electroluminescence and LED technology to 22 countries around the world.
Richard explains: “We got a technological advantage over the larger companies because while they were concentrating on making repeatable, small scale samples in the laboratory, we were focused on manufacturability and creating a high volume, high yield process.
“I was putting my neck on the line and going to big brands such as Levi, O2, Nike and Apple and saying we could do their POS (point of sale) and instore advertising. We were landing lucrative contracts and then working out how to deliver them.
“The way I priced each job, though, meant we had opportunities to develop the technology as we went. Even if we had failures along the way, we could still deliver on our promises.”
Elumin8 worked on a number of flagship projects including the Angel’s Wine Tower at the Radisson Blu Hotel at Stansted Airport – where thousands of bottles are stored in a 16-metre illuminated tower and retrieved by aerial acrobats – and an enormous illuminating 22-metre-long wall at Heathrow’s Terminal 5.
Elumin8’s work also attracted the attention of artists from around the world who contacted the company asking if they could use the illuminating materials in their work.
Given Richard’s background, he agreed, and ended up sponsoring some of the artists – a tactic that was to prove commercially advantageous, as he explains: “I was invited to Fiorano, Ferrari’s famous test circuit in Italy and while I was waiting for the meeting to start, I noticed a wall filled with pictures of artists – many of whom I was sponsoring.
“I realised that no one was interested in the technology of the LEDs, but they were interested in what could be done with it creatively. I also realised that if more artists used our material, they could showcase it and that would attract much more attention than the commercial applications would.”
Richard created an art foundation and began sponsoring more artists, including the Sunderland-born fashion designer, Gareth Pugh, whose famous illuminating dress was later used in an HSBC commercial.
Such attention helped Elumin8 to secure commercial contracts with Jaguar, Ford, Mercedes-Benz and Aston Martin.
Keen to move the business forward, Richard became interested in organic light-emitting devices (OLED) – passing electric currents though certain organic molecules and polymers to create light – as a way of solving long-term viability issues with the existing technology. However, he met resistance from the Elumin8 board and eventually resigned from the company.
Richard began consulting for several large international conglomerates and was asked to join the advisory board at CPI (Centre for Process Innovation), based at NETPark Science Park in Sedgefield – the event which first brought him to the North East.
Committed to developing a large-scale manufacturing process for OLEDs, Richard also created a business plan, successfully applied for Government grant, approached investors and formed a new company, which he named PolyPhotonix.
A few months later, the 2008 global economic crash hit, leaving Richard with a large Government research and development grant but no investors.
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Richard’s dream was kept alive, however, when CPI stepped to form a joint partnership.
PolyPhotonix, comprising the former artist and a small team of physics and chemistry specialists, got to work on developing high-volume OLED process. But within 15 months, Richard realised this strategy was doomed to fail.
“I found that there wasn’t the required investment capital in Europe to fund what we were focusing on and that companies in Asia – where there was the right level of funding – were making a parallel approach. I knew we couldn’t compete.”
Richard began looking at new markets for his OLEDs and decided that the one with the highest potential was medical.
He began attending numerous medical conferences to find a condition where PolyPhotonix could help and his eureka moment came as he heard a professor talk about the causes of diabetic retinopathy, which causes loss of sight in patients due to unstable blood vessels in the retina.
“As I was listening, I realised that the insights that PolyPhotonix had into light energy and the knowledge the professor had on the photoresponse at the back of the eye could be combined.”
Richard briefly teamed up with the professor to create a hypothesis, before PolyPhotonix set about proving the theory, developing a method of delivering a treatment and proving its viability.
The team at PolyPhotonix came up with an innovative eye mask that patients wear at night to treat and prevent diabetic retinopathy and diabetic macular oedema.
The County Durham company is currently in the final phases of trials of the Noctura 400 Sleep Mask, but has gathered enough evidence for it to be fully CE Marked, while being able to impressive claims about the mask’s results.
“We now have more than 700,000 hours of recorded patient use and we have not found any adverse effects,” says Richard. “The results have been spectacular, even with non-responder patients for whom other treatments have not worked. It has managed to treat and reverse the condition, and in some cases, people have regained some of their sight.”
The mask offers an alternative prevention and treatment to more invasive lasers or injections into the eye, and at a far cheaper cost, as Richard explains.
“Injecting the eye roughly costs the NHS £6500 a year per eye, per patient, and with the ageing population set to cause the levels of diabetes to soar, we estimate that our technology could save the NHS more than half a billion pounds a year.”
Currently, the Noctura 400 masks are available privately and in 35 hospitals in the UK where they are being used as part of clinical trials. For Richard, though, full NHS adoption remains frustratingly low.
“The average time for the NHS to adopt a med tech like ours is nine years. For a molecular technology, it’s 17 years!” he says. “It’s painfully slow but, thankfully, we are getting closer to the sleep mask’s full adoption.”
PolyPhotonix will continue in this quest during 2017 and the team are looking at other global markets, with the Noctura 400 already being used in France, while inroads are being made in China and the USA.
“We already have some patients travelling to the UK from the USA to gain access to the mask,” explains Richard. “We’ve also seen a lot of positive feedback on social media in diabetics’ groups which is helping to spread the word.”
Unusually for a med tech company, PolyPhotonix has taken the step to donate five per cent of its revenue from private sales to the charity Fight for Sight.
“The charity funds so much research into the causes of blindness and it is the first time it has partnered with any company,” says Richard. “At PolyPhotonix, we see the move as adding to our credentials; we genuinely are an ethical company and take what we do very seriously.
“If you look at what health issues concern people the most, first is cancer, second is chronic pain and the third is blindness. People can’t imagine a life without sight.”
PolyPhotonix is also working on new medical applications for its light technology but the details of these remain strictly confidential.
“We can’t say too much because we don’t want to make claims that we can’t deliver on,” says Richard. “But we are looking at several disease states and how biophotonics – the effect of light on the body – can be used.”
Richard admits he has a “broad line perspective on things” and growing up, “never differentiated between science and art.”
As a result of his non-traditional career path, he is now often hailed as an example of how artistic thinking can add to scientific discoveries and is regularly asked to speak at conferences and events exploring the transition from STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) to STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics).
Richard was invited to run a class at Harvard University a few years ago that invited integrated thinking from students from physics, maths, literature, history and arts.
“Some really interesting ideas developed in that class, especially in solving the issue of cheap lighting in Africa – where people rely on Kerosene, which is highly carcinogenic,” Richard explains.
“We developed a battery out of chicken wire, soil, some carbon filter elements and urine which could be used to power LEDs. We took it to the World Bank and got some funding but unfortunately, we couldn’t get a business model off the ground.”
He continues: “Getting talented people from multiple disciplines who are at the top of their games in a room together to discuss ideas is something that really excites me. It can spark incredible ideas.
“I call it ‘organised serendipity’ and it’s something we actively pursue at PolyPhotonix.”