Janice Kiely, 2013 Enterprise Fellow
Professor Janice Kiely was awarded a prestigious Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise Fellowship in 2013. The Enterprise Fellowships provide funding, training and mentoring to outstanding entrepreneurial engineering researchers who are working at a UK University, in order to enable them to develop a spin-out business around their technological idea.
Since becoming a member of the Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise Hub, Janice was also awarded the Blavatnik Family Foundation Enterprise Fellowship Alumni Award in 2014, in recognition of her excellence in engineering entrepreneurship.
Janice received both awards due to her work on food safety testing, and specifically her development of a robust and cheap bio-sensing kit to test food onsite in food processing facilities or at borders.
Food, particularly meat, needs to be tested to ensure that it is not contaminated with disease or other chemicals. Over 260,000 samples are tested each year for contaminants under European guidelines. One problem is the increasing prophylactic use of antibiotics in farming to prevent animals contracting certain diseases. These antibiotics can make their way into the meat and may contribute to antimicrobial resistance in humans. European guidelines set limits for levels of antibiotics in food products, and the market for antibiotic residue testing is around £200 million.
Traditionally, samples are taken and then sent off to a lab for testing. Food is usually sent on for consumption straight after testing, as the test result can take days, by which time the food would have expired. If a sample is found to be positive, the party responsible will be fined, but someone may have still eaten the contaminated food.
Janice’s bio-sensing test kits take just hours to provide a result, letting users know when food is contaminated and preventing it being sent on for consumption.
Identifying the opportunity
Through her research in bio-sensing at the University of the West of England (UWE), Janice discovered that magnetic particles could be used as part of an immuno assay to test for contaminants in meat. She decided to develop the technology as a robust and low-cost test kit.
In the test kit, a sample is placed into a reaction vessel that contains magnetic particles coated in an antibody. If a contaminant, such as an antibiotic, is present in the sample then it binds to the magnetic particles and a magnet then pulls these binded particles down onto the surface of the test kit. The number of the particles on the surface indicates the concentration levels of the contaminant in the sample.
The test offers a more sensitive and quantitative result than alternative testing methods like agar plate tests or dipstick tests. “The test is quite simple and can be done rapidly, making it low-cost and meaning it can be completed by any staff member at the factory or processing plant” said Janice.
Spinning out the research
Before receiving her Enterprise Fellowship, Janice had been working on the technology for around 10 years with biochemist Professor Richard Luxton, also at UWE. They had developed the technology to an advanced stage, and many companies were interested in licensing the technology. However, Janice was keen to take on the challenge of starting a company to further the idea herself.
Receiving the Enterprise Fellowship from the Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise Hub allowed Janice to buy time out of her academic work to set up her company, MIATech Biosolutions Ltd. MIATech has since worked to further develop and commericalise the magneto immuno assay technology. “Without the funding from my Enterprise Fellowship, I probably would never have taken the time out of academic life to make the technology a reality” Janice said.
As well as funding, Janice also received business advice and world-class mentoring, which gave her a better understanding of launching and running a business. “Within universities, you often get the impression that working in the business world is very different and it is very difficult to make the step across. But through the Enterprise Hub I met so many people that have made that step and had the opportunity to learn what made them successful.”
What’s next for MIATech?
The next step for Janice is getting her bio-sensing kits to market. She is keen to keep the company innovating and building on the current technology to create new applications in the food safety and even medical diagnosis fields. In the short-term, in addition to testing for antibiotics in meat, Janice is also planning to use her bio-sensing test kits to look at bacteria in food. “The kits are a platform technology so could be applied in a number of fields, helping to and low cost testing when time is of the essence” she concludes.