Sagentia masters the art of transforming possibilities into successful products
From smart surgery solutions and medical diagnostics to personalised skincare formulations or the froth on your cappuccino, Sagentia’s influence is all around us.
A research and development consultancy, underpinned by science and with a strong technology focus, its stated aim is to help clients transform possibilities into successful products. That could mean analysing a market, improving an existing product or developing something from scratch, as Dr Nick Collier, the medical chief technology officer, explains.
“Clients come to us at all stages of their project. The product life cycle can go from a client identifying an opportunity or threat, all the way through to having a product in the market and wanting to drive down the cost – and we do everything in between,” he tells the Cambridge Independent.
“Some clients will come to us because they’ve identified a new market, or their competitors are doing something, and they want to learn more about it. This is the advisory and market insights part of our business, which is about understanding where the market or technology is going and helping the client figure out what it is that they want to – or should – do.
“For example, we can help them understand what the technology can do, where their technology roadmap needs to go and what customers want from their technology.”
Sometimes clients will come to Sagentia, based at Harston Mill, with a specific challenge.
“It might be that they need to improve the performance of their product in some way – for example, they might want 10 times the sensitivity from a molecular assay to increase the sensitivity of detecting a virus. So, it might be a focused question: how do I increase the sensitivity of my optical detector, or how do I make this run 10 times faster, or how do I get cost to manufacture down?”
Some of the biggest projects involve engineering new products, following careful market analysis.
“Once you know what it is you want to do, you know what the market is you’re going for and you’ve got an idea of how to tackle it, then you need to do the design and engineering to turn this into something you can manufacture at the right price point and volume,” says Nick.
“It’s a big part of our business, because they are large projects and last a long time.”
In the medical field where Nick’s responsibilities lie, the science and technology consultancy recently completed a project on a proton therapy machine.
“These machines are huge. You build the building for proton therapy machines and then ship the kit in. It’s used for very highly focused cancer treatment, as it avoids damaging bits of tissue you don’t want to damage.” Nick explains.
Roughly the size of a tennis court, these machines are typically sited at centres of excellence.
“You have one device to generate the proton beam and then you share that beam between multiple treatment rooms, each with a bed and moving gantry that delivers the beam to the patient.
“They are major investments so you have to make sure you get the throughput through them,” says Nick.
With any project, their aim is to approach it with an open mind. But how do you ensure you do not approach a problem from a familiar angle – and miss out on innovation?
“Partly that is down to our breadth of experience,” replies Nick. “Clients are experts in what they do. They live and breathe it. But doing that means you can become quite narrow in your view: ‘It’s been done this way for the last 10 years, that’s the only way of doing it.’ Or they might be quite daunted by the challenges of breaking out. So Sagentia brings the fresh view.
“Coming in with the right skills, and fresh eyes, is one way to solve a challenge. When you bring in an outsider, sometimes they ask questions that have stopped being asked internally, because there are a whole set of historic assumptions.
“We work for many clients, many businesses and tackle many challenges. That gives us exposure to different ways of tackling problems, learning what has worked well and when people have struggled.
“And of course clients come to Cambridge consultancies to do the hard stuff or to expand their resource to accelerate development timescales. They find partnering with an external business with the relevant knowledge and experience an efficient way to accelerate their market insights and projects without having to expand their own teams, which takes time.
“Many of the projects we work on are at the cutting edge of science, technology and market understanding, so that means we get to see and work on new trends and technologies daily.
“We’re reading the journals, we’re going to the conferences – albeit virtual ones right now – we’re meeting the start-ups doing radical new things and we’re talking to multinationals that are experts in doing things in a particular way, so that gives us a good breadth of view.”
But a business is only as good as its people, so recruitment is key.
“People come into consultancy out of curiosity. They want to do new things, are looking for variety, and excel in an environment where they can work in an integrated way with people from many different disciplines” notes Nick.
The team’s dedication and resilience – and ability to rethink conventional engineering – was never more in evidence than when Sagentia answered the government’s call to join the Ventilator Challenge at the start of the UK Covid-19 outbreak.
“We knew that if we wanted to do this quickly we had to make sure the parts were easily available and we could control the specification, because if you go for state-of-the-art rather than what is clinically necessary, you won’t do it quickly,” recalls Nick. “That was part of the brief for the team. How can we use parts we can manufacture or source readily, without using lots of solenoid valves, or lots of software control?
“It started with a small team – eight of them working over a Saturday and Sunday generating initial concepts and working out how it could be mechanically driven. As those concepts matured, we brought in more engineers.
“We quickly ramped up development to have more than 80 people across many different skill groups from the business doing the Ventilator Challenge whilst I, and the rest of the business, continued to deliver for our clients. I wasn’t one of the team sleeping in the lab…”
The team delivered on their brief in just seven weeks.
“That was achieved partly through scope and making sure things run effectively. It can be a little bit easier when you are working internally and there aren’t as many stakeholders. We’re able to be nimble and make decisions and roll them out, quickly.
“Hats off to the team. Their commitment to making it work was enormous. They were putting in 16-hour plus days.
“People were really keen to get on that team. There was no shortage of volunteers and people saying they could come in at the weekend and help, which was amazing to see.”
Ultimately, the ventilator was not required by the NHS, as it was not as overwhelmed as initially feared and the treatment pathway changed.
“Clinically, you could see that clinicians ultimately tried to avoid putting people on ventilators,” notes Nick. “I was reading papers that said once you were on a ventilator you had 50 per cent chance of survival. Clinicians were saying it is better to be slightly hypoxic – short on oxygen in cells and tissues – which normally you wouldn’t want, but their survival was better.
“The engineers and scientists are proud of what they accomplished in the timescale. Whilst the ventilators weren’t needed, and that was the best possible outcome, what drove them was the desire to create a technology that can help people through improving and even saving lives – that’s one reason we are passionate about medical development.”
Sagentia’s range of scientific expertise is broad – covering optics and imaging, fluidics and microfluidics, acoustics and ultrasound, materials science, sensor development, chemistry formulation and thermal engineering.
Its teams of mechanical, electronic and software engineers offer skills including wireless connectivity, systems, hardware, miniaturisation and algorithms.
Another field in which these skills are increasingly brought to bear is precision agriculture, which Nick’s colleague, fellow CTO Alun James, oversees on the commercial side.
“One of the themes there is about reducing the number of chemicals you put on fields – pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers,” notes Nick.
“Traditionally, you would broadcast these across the whole of your field. Some would hit the crops, some would go on the ground, some would have hit the weeds.
“There is a big drive to improve agriculture by getting your yields high but balancing that against bringing the burden on the environment down. That’s about targeting your delivery, or it could mean mechanically taking out a weed but leaving the strawberry plant in. Or it could be about picking fruit without having to employ as many farm workers, who – especially now – can be hard to find. It’s a case of bringing technology to markets that have been relatively low tech.”
From farm to fork, the work continues in food technology.
Leatherhead Food Research is part of the Science Group umbrella of companies, along with Sagentia.
“They help some of the world’s leading food and beverage companies across a range of challenges, all over the world. For example, they work with manufacturers to help them qualify the potential of new ingredients and technologies that can deliver increased health benefits to consumers. This includes everything from ensuring the regulatory and safety compliance in over 150 markets, through to how best to communicate to consumers, ie is there scientific data to support a claim that this beverage makes your heart healthier?”
Sagentia was also involved in improving the quality of cappuccinos from vending machines for Four Square, a division of Mars UK.
“The challenge was how to put froth on the top of a coffee without having to put fresh milk in and steam it, because that requires a lot of maintenance and cleaning to keep it safe,” says Nick.
Sagentia’s 100,000-plus square foot headquarters feature specialist labs, 3D printing capability, a fully equipped machine shop and secure facilities for confidential product development. Its team has continued to deliver innovations throughout the pandemic, working partly from home, with lab space available as required.
Clients are keen to learn what the future will look like, post-Covid-19.
“They want to know how consumer demand will change,” says Nick. “What do we need to do with our products now customers are much more health-aware? For example, if there was a focus on antibacterials, should it now be about anti-virals?
“And on the advisory and market insights side, there is benchmarking such as how companies are derisking their business around supply chains. Clients are a little more nervous about off-shoring. They are asking how they can scale up production with more local supply, so they are robust around transport and travel.”
Other trends provoked by the pandemic include the growth in telemedicine and a sharpened focus on point-of-care diagnostics, a field in which Nick specialises.
“Point-of-care diagnostics have been on the horizon for many years but continue to move forward. Covid-19 has increased awareness.
“We’re working on bringing molecular diagnostics closer to the patient. Covid-19 is an example, but sexually-transmitted diseases are another where you need to respond quickly, because they can be hard population groups to pin down.”
In addition to supporting and reviewing projects, Nick’s role as CTO is also outward-looking, monitoring emerging trends. Beyond Covid-19, Nick sees tackling sepsis – a big killer in hospitals – as one important field.
“There is a lot of work around biomarkers to try and get diagnosis of the bacterial or fungal infection in hours, rather than days. Diagnosis is currently made from blood culture, so this would avoid that,” he says.
Improving cancer screening, diagnosis and treatment predictions are also a continuing focus.
“How do you know which drugs to use? You need a molecular, genetic understanding – that is, what mutations a patient has. Particularly interesting there is liquid biopsy, where you screen from a blood sample for a particular cancer or mutation,” says Nick. “There are also efforts to speed up tissue sampling to get results back in days rather than weeks.
“Outside diagnostics, we continue to see a big trend in robotic surgery and bringing SMART technology into surgery. How do you enable a surgeon to perform a more accurate, faster or less invasive procedure?”
Sagentia, which also has offices in Epsom, Surrey, in Waterloo Road, London, and on the east and west coasts of America, is sponsoring the Covid-19 Response Award at the Cambridge Independent Science and Technology Awards . Nick is bringing his expertise to the judging process this month, ahead of the shortlist being announced in November and the winners early next year. The judging will not be an easy task, given the high quality of entrants. But then, handling complex challenges is Sagentia’s forte.
Learn more at sagentia.com .
From AstraZeneca to Unilever
Sagentia’s client list is as fascinating as it is broad.
In the beauty and personal care field, the company worked with Unilever to create the DADI – the Dove Advanced Diagnostic Instrument – which engaged and communicated with consumers about their level of hair damage and recommended and proved the efficacy of specific Dove hair care products, to inform advertising campaigns.
It also developed a ‘smart’ system for the delivery of personalised skincare formulations for premier anti-aging company, Nu Skin. The system provides a more tailored experience for consumers and provides a new platform that encourages repeat purchasing of NuSkin’s formulation products.
In nine weeks, it made an internet-enabled kettle that could be controlled remotely for UK start-up Appkettle.
And in the medical sector, its patented programmable magnetic resonance technology was used for an automated drug identification and delivery system for AstraZeneca’s Diprifusor – now used worldwide. It also supported the development of the Alere i – the first molecular diagnostic system to receive a CLIA waiver from the FDA.
In telecoms, meanwhile, it worked with Vodafone on M-PESA, a mobile micro finance service for emerging markets that is now a fully commercial service with more than 10 million users across Kenya, Tanzania, Afghanistan and India.