Winner of the Venture Catalyst Challenge Grand Final and Audience Prize in2019, VUI Diagnostics are developing a technology to provide simple, affordable and accurate retinal imaging to help address avoidable blindness around the world
The problem and solution
One billion people around the world suffer from blindness that could be avoided, and an early diagnosis could have prevented vision loss for 80 % of these people. Over the past 10 years, this inability to recognise eye disease early on has cost the global economy £4.8 trillion. Imaging the retina can diagnose over 50 diseases, including glaucoma and diabetes. However, retinal screening is often neglected because current tools are complex, slow and inaccurate.
At VUI we want to help doctors detect retinal diseases earlier so we can make the majority of avoidable blindness a thing of the past. VUI Diagnostics offer a novel, plug-and-play device that aims to provide simple, affordable and accurate retinal imaging.
As medical students, we observe clinical practice everyday and gain unique insights into its brilliance and its foibles. When working in primary care, we noticed that current imaging devices were being under-used.
From interviews with GPs and expert eye doctors we discovered they were reluctant to use existing screening tools due to concerns that errors could harm patient’s eyesight or, conversely, trigger unnecessary referrals. The existence of these potential errors was confirmed through discussions with patients, some of whom had experienced delayed referrals due to missed diagnoses which compromised their eye health.
In summary there is pressing need for a device that offers simple, affordable and accurate retinal imaging – the three key tenets of VUI.
As fellow medical students at Imperial, we have known each other since we started Medical School. In addition to our common passion for medicine we share an enthusiasm for technology and we both have an entrepreneurial spirit. We are also people who strive to find viable solutions to problems we encounter in clinical practice. In the development of VUI, our combined expertise in software and biomedical engineering provided the perfect blend to create a solution for this global problem.
Thanks to the Imperial College Advanced Hackspace and Enterprise Lab, we now have a minimal viable product (MVP) and will soon be commencing clinical validation studies at the Royal Free Hospital and the Western Eye Hospital. In these we will be stress testing our device and obtaining qualitative and quantitative data on safety, performance and efficacy. This wealth of data will contribute to our application for CE certification and future U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval.
Alongside this, we will be developing a blueprint for our manufacturing processes, expanding our intellectual property (IP) protection globally and attempting to penetrate our beachhead market of London Primary Care Practices through their respective Clinical Commissioning Groups. We also intend to develop international partnerships with healthcare providers and charities in Asia and Africa, where we believe our product can make a valuable social impact.
We have three fantastic advisors with expertise in clinical medicine, medical devices, NHS procurement and manufacturing processes. Our manufacturing and commercialisation advisor, David Griffiths, was recommended to us through the Advanced Hackspace and also from a fellow Imperial start-up, Mitt Wearables. When we met David it was clear that we needed to incorporate his insight and experience.
We knew our clinical advisors, Ms Rahila Zakir and Mr Riaz Asaria, through our studies. When we showed them our prototype, they were very keen to get involved, and it was very reassuring to see such a positive reaction from such experienced clinicians.
Enterprise Lab and Advanced Hackspace support
The Imperial College Advanced Hackspace (ICAH) has been absolutely central to converting the VUI concept into a functional prototype. Through the ICAH Project Boot Grant, we received our first funding for consumables. Aided by their state-of-the-art facilities, including advanced 3D printing machines, we could rapidly iterate our device until we found a working solution. The ICAH is just a fantastic resource where you can develop your invention and take those first entrepreneurial steps.
The Enterprise Lab and its ever helpful team have been pivotal in kickstarting our company and shaping our plans for the future. The advisors-in-residence have given us great support in business planning, legal and IP advice. Looking to the future, we are planning to further consolidate our leaning through the Imperial Venture Mentoring Service (IVMS).
One of the most memorable and valuable events this year for VUI has undoubtedly been the Venture Catalyst Challenge (VCC) 2019. The process and masterclasses encouraged us to pin down our value proposition and hone our pitching skills. We obtained feedback from potential customers and patients and it provided us with a crucial launchpad with which to secure multiple partnerships with major hospitals and international eye charities.
The VCC Audience Prize provided a day of priceless insights and tailored advice to help us establish firm foundations as an early stage start-up. We now know the key steps needed to formulate an investor focussed pitch and we have received critical feedback on our business plan and brand design. Overall both experiences were truly unique. From a financial perspective, the VCC Prize Money has already funded our UK patent application and will be injected into our clinical trials to get our product ready for market.
Successes and setbacks
We’ve had a number of successes since we started which are all interconnected. Firstly we developed a minimal viable product which fulfils the ‘simple, affordable, accurate criteria that was identified by doctors and patients. Secondly, we won the VCC Audience prize and secured funding from other Imperial College initiatives. Thirdly we have secured world-class clinical partnerships with the Royal Free Hospital and Western Eye Hospital to commence clinical trials of our device.
So far we haven’t had any major set-backs apart from missing out funding from a handful of external start-up competitions. Going forward, we’re likely to encounter some setbacks but we have a very positive attitude and believe in our product.
Advice to aspiring entrepreneurs
Persevere and be adaptable. And, above all, make the most of Imperial’s vibrant and connected community to develop your ideas.