How do you translate theoretical research into a commercial product?

Professor Robert Prance and his team in the University of Sussex Department of Engineering had a problem; how to accurately detect tiny fluctuations in electrical charge? They were working on a fundamental physics project – funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council – looking at the behaviour of low-temperature quantum circuits.

Unsurprisingly, this area of study turned out to be far removed from the commercial product it would eventually lead to. The tool that Robert and his colleagues developed as part of their research project was revolutionary, a sensor capable of detecting minute changes in spatial potential, electric field or charge.

Prior to this, laboratories had used variations of the same equipment to measure electric potential for well over a century. While capable of giving relatively useful readings, traditional potentiometers and electrometers have a limited degree of accuracy, and more sophisticated tools were too cumbersome for practical, everyday use.

Professor Prance brought his findings to the University’s Enterprise Panel, who asked the Sussex Innovation Centre to support them in drawing a commercial outcome from the opportunity.

Identifying the opportunity

There were many possible routes to leveraging the patented technology, including healthcare, safety, security, computer interfaces and materials testing. We recommended conducting extensive market research to identify an opportunity that was close to market, and find a suitable commercial partner to support further development of the sensors.

By taking the innovation out of its academic environment and into a commercial setting, the Sussex Innovation Centre’s support team were able to engage with businesses across a range of sectors as part of this discovery process. By understanding intimately the processes where similar technology was currently in use, we realized that there was an opportunity in the market for home medical care, as a way of simply performing an electrocardiogram (ECG) without a medical professional present.

Marketing the technology

Out of these discussions came the recognition that miniaturization was a key factor in getting the technology to market. This led to conversations with the microchip manufacturer Plessey Semiconductors, which procured a full licence to manufacture and market the technology in 2012.

Plessey continue to work alongside Professor Prance in developing the rebranded EPIC sensor for new purposes. EPIC sensors are now used in a range of products including imPulse, a joypad-like tool that can be used to take an instant ECG reading in the home and transmit the results to a connected device such as a smartphone or laptop, before sending them to a clinician. It could potentially save countless hours for both patients and clinicians, as well as minimising the need for invasive and uncomfortable procedures.