Susannah Clarke, 2013 Enterprise Fellow
Susannah Clarke became a member of the Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise Hub in 2013, after being awarded one of the first Enterprise Fellowships. She was selected for her work in pioneering a new type of 3D printed technology to revolutionise joint replacements.
Current joint replacement instrumentation systems are standardised, employing a one-size-fits-all approach, despite the fact that bone shape and size can vary widely between individuals. Susannah had the idea to create fully-customised parts for surgery. Through her company, Embody Orthopaedic, she now produces instruments designed specifically for a one person’s surgical intervention and printed in nylon, a low-cost, robust material that can be readily sterilised. The minimally invasive devices assist highly skilled surgeons to position replacements precisely, potentially increasing functional outcomes, reducing the risk of revision of the implant, and minimising recovery times. This is particularly valuable in today’s ageing population, where slower recovery times add pressure to already-stretched healthcare systems.
Laying the groundwork
After studying for an engineering degree at the University of Cambridge, Susannah came to London’s Royal College of Art to undertake a Masters in Industrial Design Engineering. It was here that she developed an interest in medical device design, leading her to complete a PhD in orthopaedics at Imperial College London, researching the means by which hip implants fail due to being poorly positioned in patients.
Susannah chose to apply her design engineering expertise to the medical field in part because she felt it promised to be more rewarding than other areas of design. She said, “Consumer products get thrown away; it is much nicer to design something that people really use and depend on. It makes you feel good about what you do.”
In 2012, Susannah was recognised as one of the country’s most promising engineering entrepreneurs by the award of an Enterprise Fellowship from the Royal Academy of Engineering. The £85,000 grant from the Fellowship, allowed Susannah to co-found Embody Orthopaedic. “I was keen to commercialise what I was working on in my academic life to make sure that patients could benefit from it in terms of more effective surgery,” she said. “The Fellowship gave me the time, business skills and initial funding I needed to spin-out a company from Imperial.”
Susannah has been mentored by Professor Saeed Zahedi OBE FREng, who has worked closely with her to develop her business skills. Saeed has extensive experience in prosthetics design, so has been able to advise Susannah on how to maximise market opportunities and develop an ambitious but achievable road map of new products, to help grow Embody in the future.
Susannah said, “The Enterprise Hub has given me access to opportunities that have played a big role in my progress, particularly being able to take time out from my research to focus on the project, and receiving business training. The events organised by the Enterprise Hub have also enabled me to meet some very experienced people in the industry who gave me their views on my project from a completely different perspective, which was invaluable. And actually, one of the early patients treated using our technology was pointed our way by one of his friends who I had met at a Hub event!”
Susannah’s instruments are now used in both everyday surgery types and more specialised cases, such as for soldiers who have experienced lower limb gunshot wounds. Using 3D printing technology can enable a very complex operation to be planned and undertaken in a much reduced timeframe, allowing an entirely personalised surgical approach at an affordable cost.
Under Susannah’s leadership, Embody is currently more than doubling its yearly revenue and has supplied its customisable instrumentation into over 400 surgeries. This move demonstrates the quality and breadth of the work that Susannah and Embody are doing in the field of surgery.
Based at the Musculoskeletal Laboratory at Charing Cross Hospital, Embody currently has four full-time employees and, within Imperial College, other scientists and engineers work on a contract basis.
Facing the unique challenges of the medical sector
The medical industry is often described as one of the hardest areas to succeed as an entrepreneur. The regulatory barriers are significant and expensive to meet, so it can be years until you see any revenue as a business. As such, Susannah’s advice to those starting out in the sector would be to find ways of generating early revenue. She said, “If all we did was make implants, we would have had years without any revenue, so we decided to make surgical guides and bone models and sell print time on our 3D printer; all of these provided revenue and got us in front of our customer base earlier.” She also recommends applying for non-diluted funding, as this is easier to secure when your technology tackles societal issues.
Where next for Embody?
Embody is already working on 3D printing customisable implants. Furthering plans to deliver a fully tailored joint replacement process, from surgical planning to recovery, the company is also launching a web-based surgical planning system. This allows surgeons to upload patient scans and trial different surgical scenarios pre-operatively. Within the next ten years, Susannah plans to apply the technology in other fields such as maxillofacial, cardiovascular and dental surgery.
“The Enterprise Hub has given me access to opportunities that have played a big role in my progress, particularly being able to take time out from my research to focus on the project, and receiving business training. The events organised by The Enterprise Hub have also enabled me to meet some very experienced people in the industry who gave me their views on my project from a completely different perspective, which was invaluable.”