Billy Boyle of Owlstone Medical on the inspiration behind his mission to save 100,000 from dying of cancer
After losing his wife, Cambridge entrepreneur is determined his breath test device will make a difference
Billy Boyle is a man on a mission, and that mission is to save 100,000 people from dying of cancer by getting an early-stage breath test developed by the firm he founded and runs, Owlstone Medical, into widespread use as fast as possible.
Owlstone started life in 2004 as a developer of military applications. Spun out of the University of Cambridge – Billy got a masters at the Department of Engineering – Owlstone’s breath testtechnology is a miniature chemical sensor sited on a silicon chip, and works using the firm’s patented Field Asymmetric Ion Mobility Spectrometry (FAIMS) technology, a mature technology for gas phase ion separation.
“We won a lot of funding from the Ministry of Defence to mature the technology,” Billy told the Cambridge Independent. “Once you have that then it’s a question of how you deploy it in medical applications.”
FAIMS is able to diagnose cancers and can be adapted to test for inflammatory and infectious diseases. Billy has netted $23.5million in investment to date, but the medical arm of the firm was spun out from Owlstone Inc in March last year. Owlstone Medical’s trajectory was also influenced by a personal tragedy: in October 2012, Billy’s wife Kate – the mother of their twin sons and an adviser to Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – was diagnosed with colon cancer.
“We had the technology and were looking around to see what we could do with the technology at around the time that my wife was originally diagnosed. She was diagnosed at stage 4 and that’s very advanced: at that point I had a better understanding of what the issues are.”
Sadly, two years two months later, on Christmas Day, Kate died. The speed of her demise – she was just 34 – is at the forefront of Billy’s mind as he tries to usher Owlstone’s products through the testing processes required of such innovative medical devices.
“We have to work as fast as we can to save people from the consequences of this disease,” he says, pointing out that early diagnosis offers greater potential than new drugs.
Large-scale trials are under way for the device, which involves a simple breath test. “There’s an analogy with blood prints – you get the blood and can look for different diseases, and we’ve developed core hardware and technology to analyse the breath sample.”
Once you’ve found a way to test the biomarkers in the breath, the ‘electronic nose’ can be altered by a change of software and you can test for inflammatory diseases and oral infections including asthma, bowel disease and tuberculosis.
“The device captures the sample and all the chemicals in the breath, and that is then sent off to analyse in the lab and that analysis happens at the software level.”
Owlstone doesn’t just produce the software though, it makes the whole device at its Cambridge base.
“We have two buildings on the Science Park, with 99 people on-site in total – both the manufacturing and the laboratory sides combined.”
The firm is still very much in the research phase. In 2015 Billy led a project that became the LuCID trial, a 3,000-patient study looking to develop a cancer breathalyser for early-stage lung cancer detection. The trial was supported by a £1.1million NHS contract.
“Our main development at this stage is looking for the output of the clinical trials – that’s what we’re focused on for the next year, and efforts with wider clinical research companies and with our pharmaceutical partners. We’ll be announcing those partners in six to nine months time but the main one is 4D pharma.”
Billy knows from personal experience the importance of detecting early-stage cancer. A breath test could save millions, both in terms of peoople and money, because most cancers are treatable but by the time they get to stage 4 the survival rate drops to 4 per cent. But what about the culture at Owlstone, does he expect everyone to be aware of the urgency of the situation?
“It’s always about getting the right people more than anything else,” Billy says. “For tests and regulatory approval it’s getting the right people and getting them to do what they do – both internal and external people.
“One of the good things about starting from scratch when we began in the security business was that there was a cultural backbone and a community, and as we migrated more into the medical business we knew we needed a ton of different skills in data science and research and the rest. The company mission is to try and save 100,000 lives through early detection and we want people to buy into that mission: the story of my wife and me isn’t unique, there are a lot of others. What we need is technical expertise and a passionate desire that we can change things.”
There’s nothing in Owlstone’s remit that isn’t admirable.
“Part of how we see things is that in the same way as you get a blood or urine sample tested, we want breath to be used in the same way at your GP’s,” says Billy.
Owlstone is lined up for a lot of activity in 2018 and it’s activity that could help save lives: a lot of people are going to be very grateful for what Billy Boyle and his team, driven by events no one in their 30s should ever have to face, is set to achieve.
• This article was published in association with Grant Thornton’s Vibrant Economy initiative.