Photonics has been identified as one of the fastest growing areas within healthcare. Later this year the UK’s Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) will be opening a new National Centre for Healthcare Photonics to help companies develop novel technologies for healthcare applications, featuring an open-access workspace designed for industry collaboration.

From x-ray imaging to digital histology, the study and utilisation of photonics plays an integral role throughout the healthcare sector. Elliot Gardner speaks to strategic programmes manager at the CPI, Dr Tom Harvey, to find out what the new national centre will offer the medical technology community.

Elliot Gardner: Why was the decision made to create a national centre for healthcare photonics?

Dr Tom Harvey: This project was started about three years ago. The concept was based on the idea that photonics was an important underlying technology, and that the healthcare market is not an easy one for companies to develop new products for and to get into.

If you’re a company in the UK, and particularly a small company, the barriers for developing any new product with a medical application are fairly high, and they’re getting higher. You need to operate under the appropriate quality control and regulatory system for medical device manufacturing, you need to pay attention to the pathway by which the device will be adopted, and you need to understand how it’s going to be used in a clinical care setting. The time that it takes for companies to get their new technologies approved is a long process.

There’s a lot of excellent research going on in the UK in photonics, with academic groups up and down the country working on research and innovation in this area, but when new technologies come through, it can be quite difficult to bring them to market.

We want to try to create a centre that can become a location with the necessary approvals facilities to allow companies to develop their new prototype products before they get to the commercialisation stage, to help ease the whole process. We want to get them to a point where they can manufacture and get their products into a pre-clinical assessment stage or an initial clinical trial. It allows them to get the data for their technical file, which will allow them eventually to get approval in order to eventually use the device or treatment for the medical market.

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EG: Tell me more about the centre itself, and how it will look when finished

TH: We put a proposal in to the North East Local Enterprise Partnership, which helps promote economic growth in the north east of England. In 2017 they agreed to support the centre with an £8m grant.

Prior to this, we had carried out two years of workshops and market studies to research biophotonics companies in the UK that might be interested in receiving support. We based our designs for the centre on the feedback that we received from those companies, and from advice gained from talking to academics up and down the country.

We started the building process in October 2017, and the centre is about half-way constructed at the moment. It’s based at the North East Technology (NET) park, just on the edge of the town of Sedgefield in Country Durham. The CPI already has two national centres here at the NET park; the National Printable Electronics Centre, and the new National Formulation Centre which has just opened and will adjoin the National Centre for Healthcare Photonics.

The centre will have space for approximately 60 people to work in over two floors, and contains a mixture of specialist optics labs, life sciences labs, and electronic and x-ray development laboratories.

There’s a space specifically for companies to manufacture small or prototype quantities of medical devices at the required standards for medical device manufacturing. We will also have some prototyping facilities that are suitable for when product concepts are being tested. We have a number of additive print machines that allow you to visualise what that product will look like in its physical form.

Then there will be offices, and meetings and seminar rooms, because obviously an important part of the new centre’s activity will be about knowledge sharing, both with industry and with academia. The companies don’t get their own laboratory space, as everything is shared, including shared equipment, but they can have their own office space which is private to them.

EG: What’s the process for getting involved with the industry collaboration space?

TH: Well while the centre is still being built at the minute, we already have at least seven client offices allocated within it. There’s space for about 28 people, and the way it works is that we would agree with a company a specific project that they would like to work together on, with either the company funding that commercially or jointly working with us through public grants, and then the company can rent public office space and use the equipment and facilities in the new centre to carry out their research programme.

Where it’s done in a joint grant situation, they may just pay for the office space, but commercially they would also pay to use equipment as and when they require it.

That’s just one of our collaboration models; sometimes a company might pay a retainer, or they might ask for our staff to carry out work for them on their behalf. This can be a handy solution for extending their labour resource for a project, often there’s only one person in the company.

Everyone we’ve employed so far for the photonics centre has a very strong background in photonics, either in academia or in industry, so we can usually give quite a lot of business and technical support to companies working on their projects.

EG: Is the aim the further development of photonics generally? Or is your main focusing on commercially viable products?

TH: It’s not our intension to repeat the excellent work that’s been done in various university departments up and down the country in pushing forward the boundaries of different photonic techniques, such as new laser systems, or the latest in light source technologies.

We’re obviously particularly interested in the healthcare space, and that means we’re particularly focusing on areas such as allowing companies to access blood and tissue samples. We’ll have the necessary regulatory approvals in place for us to be able to obtain the samples you need as a company. We can take on a lot of the regulatory burden so the company doesn’t have to. That’s more the focus rather than pushing a particular photonic technology forward.

But where groups have developed new and improved systems, I think it’s our role to help companies move it from the research bench, through to a prototype product, and then potentially something they can introduce into real life healthcare with patients. We don’t intend to have patients through the door of the new centre, but we do work very closely with local hospitals and hospital trusts.