For our May Spotlight Series blog, we spoke to Michael Korn. Michael studied engineering at Cambridge University and Industrial Design at the Royal College of Art, where he developed KwickScreen as a master’s project and caught the entrepreneurial bug.
Together with his business partner, they took KwickScreen from the classroom to hospital wards in every NHS Trust. Read on to find out how.
In your own words what is KwickScreen?
KwickScreen is a med tech company committed to solving space problems in healthcare. We want to make spaces better, more flexible and conducive to patient recovery. We make products and design solutions that improve infection control and the aesthetics of the environment, therefore improving the patient and staff experience. Our mission is to supersede the disposable plastic curtains between hospital beds that are ineffective, unhygienic, and unsustainable.
Engineering is all about solving problems. What problem is your innovation solving?
My sister works in a hospital and one of her biggest frustrations is a lack of private and isolated spaces to accommodate patients and practitioners. As we have learnt during COVID19 - for a hospital, no two days are the same and they need to have a way to respond and flex their space to meet changes in demand.
Hospitals are built to be functional and not for the aesthetics, but there is growing evidence to show that the environment has a significant impact on patient recovery.
So I wanted to find a way to adapt the environment to the patient. Transporting a patient is disruptive, takes time and also increases the risk of infections spreading. So I invented KwickScreen to tackle these problems.
What makes your innovation ground-breaking? Can you explain to our readers/the public how it works?
KwickScreens are retractable hygienic partitions. Although simple in concept, the ground-breaking technology is our patented bi-stable composite tubes that enable the 3m length screen to be self-supporting. KwickScreen reduces trip hazards, increases flexibility in a busy hospital environment and provides privacy. Currently, this is achieved with disposable curtains - ugly, large hanging dirt traps that end up in landfill. Our screens are reusable and help prevent spread of infections. For the user/nurse, KwickScreens work like a curtain but look like a printed wall.
What was the moment that made you think “I can turn this into a commercial opportunity”?
One of the biggest boosts came from the Department of Health. We joined their Smart Ideas programme, which connected us with the NHS, and were paid upfront for a batch of screens to test in real-life hospital environments.
Our screens were used by the family of a dying man, who stayed by his side for days. The screens provided privacy and were printed with nature scenes to create a soothing environment. The family were so pleased with the setup that as a thank you, they donated money so the hospital could buy more screens. This gesture hit home and showed me the impact we could have on people’s lives.
Wading into unknown territory can be unsettling – what were you most excited by and what was most challenging for you when starting out?
I was most excited about making a positive impact, knowing that my invention was helping people every day. I also felt that I could create a company with interesting worthwhile jobs. This what I’m most proud of, as KwickScreen is full of passionate people doing fulfilling work.
The most challenging thing was doing all of this without any external resources. Everything at KwickScreen was built from scratch, learnt and bootstrapped. It was hard, but this meant that the journey was more authentic, real and longer lasting. We have a secure supply chain, and in-house manufacturing, design and development and sales functions. We are still 100% privately owned and in a great position to scale further.
Can you share a time when failure mattered in your business journey?
My greatest failure was being scared of failure - I spent too long perfecting a prototype of our product for a customer to trial. In the end the customer cared more about having something on time than having something perfect that was late. My fear led me to lose this contract and this was such a valuable lesson, as we now always hold the customer’s needs ahead of ours.
How did you go about building your team and finding your first team members?
The first person to join was my business partner Denis Anscomb. Since then we have focused on recruiting, young, talented people. To achieve fast growth, we thought we needed to hire experienced people but in doing so we worked with a lot of people who didn’t share our company values. We’ve since changed our strategy and developed a future leaders programme to nurture new talent and to keep the business growing. Many of the people on our future leaders programme have come straight from university. We are truly meritocratic and while we have lots of glass walls in our new factory, there are absolutely no glass ceilings!
What has been the most surprising aspect about your entrepreneurial journey?
I was surprised how much was possible when I followed my own instincts. When I have taken the unusual approach, good things have happened to me. I could easily have become a standard cog in someone else’s machine, but I believe that businesses should be built by bringing together diverse minds and ways of thinking.
What impact has the Shott Scale Up Accelerator had on your business? What are the most valuable lessons you’ve learnt?
The Shott Scale Up Accelerator programme has had a huge impact on the business. I came to realise that the company couldn’t be expected to grow if I didn’t myself have a growth mindset. This became clear from the programme and from spending time with others in my cohort, as it helped me to see myself from their perspective. I needed to think more about working “on” the company rather than “in” the company. The benefits of the leadership programme will therefore be felt by the leaders in the company as I hope to create an environment where they can truly shine and excel.
And finally, have you got any tips for potential applicants?
If you feel that you are overloaded with responsibility, the programme will help by giving you: insights to help you see this problem; peers to share your experience with; and tools to get out of this predicament that many growing companies find themselves in. It’s very much about being the right fit for the programme at the right time for you and your company, so if now is not the right time then just apply again next year. It is wonderful to be part of the wider Enterprise Hub network and I hope to continue gaining from and giving back to this brilliant community.
Who is your role model?
Tell us a random fact not many people know about you
I am a Business Ambassador for Autistic people at work. I am passionate about people who are neurodiverse having equal access to work, and I’m a big advocate for the unique contributions they give to companies … I have ADHD and dyslexia - and credit many of my strengths to these traits.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
Cold water swimming … you’ll find me in the bathing pond in Hampstead whenever I get the chance to.
When I was a child, I wanted to be… High up in a tree.
I am currently binging [tv show] on Netflix/Prime… Manhunt Series two : The Night Stalker (my wife produced it)
Best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
There are those who think they can do, and those who think they can’t do it .. and they are both right.
Conversely, what has been the worst piece of advice?
Don’t try... you’ll look a fool if you fail. At the start of the pandemic, I got advice on how to scale the company tenfold in the space of a few weeks. And I was told that there would be no way we could meet the challenge to supply the NHS and that I would lose everything trying. That was the best advice I ever received, as proving that statement wrong was a huge motivator for us to pull-off the impossible.
I don’t understand why…
People don’t speak with candour. It’s much easier and more effective to just tell the truth.
Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Elon Musk, John Lennon, My grandparents
If you were an investor, which Hub Member would you invest in?
Myself of course! But I’m not looking for investment just now
Is there something you know now that you wish someone had told you when you started?
Be careful what you wish for... it’s likely to come true. Everyone has two lives and the second one starts when you realise you actually only have one life.
If you had to start all over again, would you do anything differently? If so, what?
I’d do it all again, it’s been a fun ride and it keeps getting better.
To follow KwickScreen's progress, you can check out their website and follow them on Twitter and LinkedIn. You can also learn more about the support we provide through our Shott Scale Up Accelerator programme and sign up for programme opening alerts.
The Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise Hub supports the UK’s brightest technology and engineering entrepreneurs to realise their potential.
We run three programmes for entrepreneurial engineers at different career stages. Each one offers equity-free funding, an extended programme of mentorship and coaching, and a lifetime of support through connection to an exceptional community of engineers and innovators.
The Enterprise Hub focuses on supporting individuals and fostering their potential in the long term, taking nothing in return. This sets us apart from the usual ‘accelerator’ model. The Enterprise Hub’s programmes last between 6 and 12 months, and all programmes give entrepreneurs lifelong access to an unrivalled community of mentors and alumni.
Our goal is to encourage creativity and innovation in engineering for the benefit of all. By fostering lasting, exceptional connections between talent and expertise, we aim to create a virtuous cycle of innovation that can deliver on this ambition.
The Enterprise Hub was formally launched in April 2013. Since then, we have supported over 270 researchers, recent graduates and SME leaders to start up and scale up businesses that can give practical application to their inventions. We’ve awarded over £9.5 million in grant funding, and our Hub Members have gone on to raise over £575 million in additional funding.