Dr Stephen Daniels has been recently recognised by Enterprise Ireland for his work in manufacturing, engineering and energy technology commercialisation. Claire O’Connell met the researcher, lecturer and entrepreneur to get his take on bringing innovation forward in the med-tech sector, and to find out about his work in plasma technologies.
Daniels has a particular interest in harnessing plasma – a highly charged state of gas – for clinical and semi-conductor applications, and he wears many professional hats, including being executive director of the National Centre for Plasma Science and Technology and a senior lecturer in the School of Electronic Engineering at Dublin City University (DCU).
Bombarding hospital bugs
He’s also a co-founder of Irish company Arran Healthcare, which is developing a way of disinfecting hard-to-clean items in the clinical environment in order to tackle the microbes that cause healthcare-associated infections. The company’s RADICA product uses plasma technology to decontaminate the surface of a product that is placed within its pod: the high-energy gaseous plasma puts paid to the so-called superbugs on the object.
"It’s a class II medical device product that we hope will be launched later this year," says Daniels, who now acts as an adviser for Arran. "It is a really practical engineered solution where we started with a problem statement and have now brought it towards the market."
Daniels has plenty more in the plasma pipeline, too – he’s working with consultant microbiologist Prof Hilary Humphreys in Beaumont Hospital in Dublin on a portable, handheld plasma-based device that could be used to decontaminate surfaces in the clinic. In this case, the device could be brought to the surface that needs to be cleaned, and it would use plasma to potentially see off microbes, such as MRSA, Clostridium difficile and other pathogens.
"The beauty here is it that is clinician-led," says Daniels of the project, which is being funded by the Health Research Board and Science Foundation Ireland (SFI).
"There are many technical obstacles, but we would like to demonstrate the potential impact for the technology. It’s Star Trek but we can see the end result."
Diagnosis, plasma style
Plasma technology stands to improve diagnostics, too, and Daniels is an investigator at the SFI-funded Biomedical Diagnostics Institute at DCU, where he brings plasma expertise to bear on point-of-care devices.
"The BDI is developing platforms for the early detection of conditions, such as cancer and diabetes, and the model would be that a clinician could rapidly detect markers of disease in a small blood sample from a patient," he explains.
His role is to use plasma technology to make the surface chemistry more effective in such devices so specific chemicals will bind to it.
"A lot of the competing technologies would be wet chemistry, and the advantage of what we do is that we are bringing know how from mainstream semiconductor manufacturing into that field," says Daniels. "So there is potential for lower costs, better manufacturability and more unique characteristics of the surface, to get better specificity of the target."
The practical side of innovation
As well as research and commercialisation, Daniels also shares his expertise with master’s-level students at DCU, where he lectures on innovation and entrepreneurship. The students are keen, he says, and he wants to encourage that spark while also making sure they are aware of the real-life practicalities of bringing a technology to market.
"You need the right team, the right environment, you need luck, you need to know your customer – that is the most important – and you need to have a desire to succeed. But you also have to be pragmatic enough to know if it is not working," he says. "In very practical terms, when bringing a medical device to the market often it’s not just the technology, it’s also the medical device approval, the legislative side, the manufacturing and the quality that really count."
One of the biggest challenges facing med-tech start-ups in Ireland is the need for capital in what is an expensive process, particularly around manufacturing and especially if the technology requires clinical trials, notes Daniels.
"The need for clinical trials is a major issue facing small companies in the sector. I think the best route is starting up a company then looking to partner with a larger player," he says. "Med tech is a competitive field and you have to be aware that what might be state-of-the-art today won’t be state-of-the-art in a few years – and in general starting up a company is one of the hardest things you can do. But the rewards are there, too."
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