Nicola Irwin became a member of the Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise Hub in 2015, having been awarded a prestigious Enterprise Fellowship. She was selected for her innovation of a new lubricant coating to reduce pain and discomfort for millions of global catheter users.
For patients with poor control over their bladder function, intermittent self-catheterisation (ISC) – involving the regular insertion of catheters into the bladder via the urethra – is increasingly preferred over the use of indwelling catheters. Over 600 million of them are now sold each year, in a global market valued at $800 million.
However, regular insertion of poorly lubricated catheters is painful and can lead to difficult-to-treat urethral complications, such as damage, bleeding and inflammation. The current coatings used dry out quickly, making them less slippery which means inserting and removing a catheter can become a difficult and painful process. These coatings have changed very little in over a decade.
Nicola, together with Professor Colin McCoy and her team at Queen’s University Belfast, has developed uroglide – a new coating technology that is cheaper than the industry-standard coating, more slippery, stays wet for longer, and adheres strongly to the catheter. uroglide coatings should ease catheter insertion and reduce damage upon removal, improving the patient’s experience.
By transforming catheterisation into a quick and painless process which patients can easily do themselves, uroglide is expected to save medical personnel time and, importantly, make a life-changing difference to the dignity and health of patients.
Finding her calling
Nicola studied Pharmacy as an undergraduate at Queen’s University Belfast and began specialising in this particular area during her final year undergraduate research project. She then completed a one-year pharmacy pre-registration post and, inspired by the research going on in Professor McCoy’s group at the University and understanding the real difference it could make to patients, she returned to the School of Pharmacy to complete a PhD. Her focus was the area of bioactive biomaterials and infection control, specifically the development of infection-responsive urinary biomaterials.
The turning point for Nicola was in realising that the technology they were developing in the laboratory could really make it to market and benefit patients. She said, “I had often read about the problems faced by catheter users but it was only through meeting patients and listening to their individual stories that I gained a much greater understanding of, and sensitivity towards, their challenges. I was extremely motivated by the urgent need to develop an improved solution.”
Securing the support to take it forward
Just one year after completing her PhD, Nicola successfully applied for a Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise Fellowship to accelerate the move from lab to market.
Each year, a new cohort of Enterprise Fellows are each awarded funding and salary support through the Enterprise Hub to spend the next 12 months exclusively developing a spin-out business based on their innovations. They’re also given a mentor from the Academy’s Fellowship to provide support and advice, and receive business training to help develop the skills needed to succeed commercially.
This recognition and support from the Academy has already proved to be a big confidence boost for Nicola, who said, “Receiving external validation of our technology from a team of world-renowned and highly successful entrepreneurs has been a real encouragement. I know that with the training and mentorship provided by the Enterprise Hub, I will be supported at every stage of the exciting, and challenging, journey that lies ahead.”
Supporting the next generation
At just 28 years of age and at an early stage of her own career, Nicola is already thinking about securing the next generation of scientists and engineers. She said, “The diversity of science and engineering entrepreneurial careers inspires me, and I’m passionate about encouraging young people to study STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. They can lead to exciting, and often unexpected, opportunities.
“When I chose Pharmacy as an undergraduate degree I never imagined that I would one day have the opportunity to start up a company developing catheter coatings!”
Nicola volunteers her time as a STEM Ambassador, which gives her the opportunity to listen to the concerns of students trying to decide on their subject choices. “I take part in careers fairs and school visits, where I can talk to them about my experiences, and advise them on the options available.”
Words of advice for other entrepreneurs
For other budding entrepreneurs, Nicola says, “Never underestimate the power of networking! Continually expand your network of contacts with individuals from a wide range of disciplines. Advice from entrepreneurs at all stages of their entrepreneurial journey can be extremely valuable but, in particular, seek honest and constructive feedback from at least one supportive experienced mentor. This is one of the major benefits of being part of the Enterprise Hub, where I’ve been given a mentor and opportunities to meet a huge range of valuable new contacts.
“I also highly recommend getting out there and doing your market research by talking to as many potential customers and end-users as possible, as this can be a major idea stimulator. From hearing the experiences of the Enterprise Hub mentors, a recurring theme has been the importance of being flexible and open to consider alternative applications of your technology. Plans may not turn out the way you expect, but don’t give up!”
Where next for uroglide?
uroglide is currently undergoing independent testing and is expected to be available for use by patients in healthcare and home settings in the next two to three years. Nicola said, “In the future, I would like the company to have a global presence as a major coatings provider with an extensive portfolio of lubricious and anti-infective solutions for a range of applications, not limited to human medical devices.
“With the training and mentoring provided through my Enterprise Fellowship, I hope to be able to confidently make the transition from the academic environment to the commercial world. I’m keen to develop my entrepreneurial skills and business acumen so that I can effectively drive the expansion of the company.”