Dotplot aims to address the lack of guidance that exists for helping women perform their breast self-checks. Breast cancer is now the leading cause of cancer incidence worldwide and 1 in 7 women in the UK will be diagnosed with it during their lifetime. A key contributor is late detection which is why checking your breasts regularly is vital. However, the existing demonstrations, tutorials, and pamphlets provided to women all suggest different methods. The majority of the women we spoke with said they couldn’t interpret what they felt in their breasts and struggled to differentiate between lumps and normal breast tissue. In short, the current ways of performing self-checks involve considerable amounts of guesswork, hence deterring many women from doing them regularly.
Dotplot solves this problem by offering women clear guidance as they perform their breast self-checks. It uses a handheld device that connects to an app to provide accurate monitoring of breast tissue composition. To use Dotplot, users are taken through one-time onboarding which includes entering the details of their period cycle – if they have one – to offer the correct date for their self-check. They then build a personalised map of their torso by providing their bra size, breast shape and using the device to rescale the baseline model.
Once set up, the app guides women through the self-check by showing them which areas they need to scan. This real-time feedback gives users assurance that they’ve checked over every region. Afterwards, they receive a report of their breast tissue which can be sent to their GP. This can be compared to readings from subsequent checks and the app will highlight any abnormalities developing in the tissue. Dotplot will encourage women to see their GP if abnormalities persist longer than 3 months. They will also be reminded to check their breasts once a month.
The idea was inspired by the diverse and on-going projects relating to Preventive and Predictive Medical Technologies. We spoke to various departments within Imperial and found out that a lot of researchers are working with Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning to build systems that aid remote medical monitoring. We also witnessed an increased need for this specific category of products during the pandemic. As students at the Dyson School of Design Engineering we were always encouraged to engage with users throughout the development of a product and found that people were looking for better ways to monitor and communicate their condition. As of now, communication mostly relies on descriptive methods, i.e. explaining things in words. Through our research at Imperial, we found that visual aids can improve communication for both users and healthcare professionals and this is a huge part of what we aim to offer with Dotplot.
Where did the idea originate?
One day our team was discussing different problems we had faced with monitoring our health. One of our co-founders, who is a female athlete, mentioned how she’d discovered an unusual knot in one of her breasts after a gym workout. She had approached a gynecologist for a clinical breast exam, where a palpation test was performed, and was advised to monitor the knot using her own fingers for a few months. Fortunately, the knot self-resolved. Using this event as a starting point, we began investigating existing tools that routinely assist women in monitoring their breasts. To our surprise, there was a lack of at-home solutions for the early detection of breast cancer, and we were then determined to build a tool that would address this need.
How did the team meet?
Our team met during our master’s programme in Innovation Design Engineering. We were working on our group project and found that we had a collective interest in designing for healthcare, especially monitoring people’s health. We were also keen on developing solutions that promoted self-care and remote monitoring.
Do you have any advisors?
We have invaluable advisors who help to guide us in the process of building our company and product. They come from a range of specialisms including oncology, radiology, health-tech and software development hence providing us with a range of insights on how best to tackle the challenges we encounter. Many of them are people we have been able to get in touch with through our studies and exhibitions at Imperial and the Royal College of Art. Their support includes, but isn’t limited to, helping us navigate technological development, providing scientific validation and determining how Dotplot would fit into the medical device landscape.
Where are you now and where do you plan to be?
Dotplot is in its initial stages of development and we are currently trying to support ourselves with grants and competition money for R&D of our MVP. We also want to bring on board specific expertise to accelerate the development process. We are also working with the Imperial Venture Mentoring Services (IVMS) to figure out a strategic roadmap to commercialising Dotplot within the next three years.
What support have you had from Imperial?
Experts-in-Residence has given us access to so many specialists who were able to advise relating to the specific stage of development we were at. It highlighted points that we may otherwise not have been aware of. For example, the various funding options available to us, competitions that would be useful for us to apply to and the different approaches we could take in developing our technology. The experts encouraged us to think about all the components needed to build our business and provided useful insights in the areas we needed help with.
In 2022 we were lucky enough to win the Grand Prize in the Venture Catalyst Challenge (VCC). VCC condensed all the vital business-related information we needed into a seven-week period which may have taken us several more weeks or months to organise by ourselves. It helped us to develop a business plan and business model and we learned about the ideal ways to raise money for our venture. Moreover, VCC accelerated our customer discovery and taught us how to be more strategic in our interviews and collecting information from them. By the end of it we were extremely well practised in teasing out key and insightful information from the conversations that we were having. The track heats in particular were great for highlighting areas of our venture that required further attention. For instance, clarifying which medical class our device would fall under and carefully considering our route to market. Upon completing VCC we felt that Dotplot was no longer just a university project but was now a budding venture that we were extremely excited to keep developing.
Following our VCCv win we were put forward for the Imperial Venture Mentoring Service (IVMS). We’ve only recently joined IVMS but we’ve already gained so much from the service in the short time that we have been involved. It has facilitated relationships with experts in our specific area of medical device development. We’ve been able to openly discuss where we are with the business and figure out which areas we are struggling with. It’s been extremely helpful to hear from the mentors who can give industry perspectives on our work and who have also experienced similar processes to the ones we ourselves are involved in.
With their guidance we are now establishing our strategic plan and mapping out key objectives for our work with Dotplot. This mentorship has greatly helped us to prioritise where to direct our efforts. It’s also been a privilege to pitch to mentors alongside other founders especially those who are further along with their development. We’ve been able to see how they have navigated challenges that we may soon face which is helping us think ahead.
Around the same time we also applied for the MedTech SuperConnector, which provides us with an environment where everyone within the cohort is specifically working towards commercialising their med-tech invention/discovery and finding the right market fit for it. It has masterclasses specific to Medtech IP and licensing clinical trial setup, and medical regulations. They have also given us funds up to £45,000 to develop our idea technically as well.
What’s been your biggest success so far?
Our biggest success so far would probably be winning the Venture Catalyst Challenge through Imperial Enterprise Lab. The 7-week process was an unforgettable introduction to the startup world and a key step in learning how to think like entrepreneurs. It was also the very first competition we had entered so to win it was surprising but massively encouraging. VCC truly accelerated our journey and taught us so much about what it takes to create a viable business. It was a privilege to meet with industry experts and to be competing alongside a fantastic cohort of entrepreneurs with world-changing ideas. It is an experience that has shaped Dotplot’s beginning and is something we will always treasure.
What’s been the biggest challenge?
Apart from the technical hurdles, our biggest challenge was deciding whether to categorise Dotplot as a medtech or femtech product. After long discussions and gathering perspectives from women and experts in different industries, we concluded that it should fall under medtech. A main reason was that for women to trust this product we found that we needed to prove it was a reliable, medically-approved device. Also, in the future we aim to extend our technology to facilitate the early detection and monitoring of other cancers and diseases including testicular cancer and soft tissue sarcoma.
What advice would you give an aspiring entrepreneur?
Our first bit of advice would be to find people who can advise and mentor you. One thing we have observed from working on Dotplot is that it takes much more than the founding team to build a business. Having a team of experts to support you can help to address your blind spots and focus your efforts on the right things. Secondly, discuss your idea with everyone and never underestimate the power of networking and reaching out to people. You’ll likely find that people are more willing to help than you’d imagine. Have conversations, where possible, with entrepreneurs who inspire you or have taken a similar path to the one you envision. By doing this you learn about what did and did not work for them and can avoid making the same mistakes. It’s also useful to find people who hate your project and understand why they don’t like it. What are their apprehensions and what can you do to address these? And finally, start where you are and build from there. Don’t feel like you need to know everything about your industry or about entrepreneurship before creating a business. What you know is probably more than enough to get going.