Professor Michael P. Hughes
Director of Biomedical Enginering, University of Surrey, UK
I remember going to a very inspirational lecture several years ago. At the time my mindset was that all inventions should be published, nothing should be patented - then anyone who wanted to use it, could. The lecturer pointed out that if anyone could, no-one ever would because no-one could make a profit - they'd always be undercut by someone doing it more cheaply. Since I wanted to make sure the group's inventions made an impact on the world, we went down the commercial route and founded DEPtech (now Deparator).
Whilst commercial work is often anathaema to academics, it offers a lot of value. Whilst a paper is valued according to how many times it's cited, a product is valued by how many people were compelled to put up real money to by one. Meaning unlike papers (which often describe idealised conditions), the technology in a product has to work all the time, everywhere. And you still get to put out a paper on it!
Deparator has to date produced two products, both employing patents filed at the University of Surrey. The 3DEP is the world's first DEP cell analysis tool. The Deparator is the one of the world's fastest cell sorters. Both use the DEP-Well patent for constructing chips containing "well" structures with electrodes striped down the inside. Both worked on a principle of meeting a specification of what potetnial customers would find useful, rather than what scientists would be impressed by.
In the case of the 3DEP, this meant developing a system that didn't require microfluidics, that could be loaded quickly and which could accurately measure large numbers of cells in parallel (typically 20,000 in 10 seconds). Since then we've also found that we can use it at approaching - and in some cases, reaching - physiological strength ionic media, producing results which benchmark to patch-clamp and other methods.
For the Deparator, we set out to meet a specification of separating 10 ml of cells at a concentration of 1 million cells at 1million/min. In fact we exceeded this handsomely - the final system an separate 20ml of cells at 50 million/ml, and on a 2-pass strategy separate at an effective rate of 150,000 cells/sec.
One of the proudest moments of my research career wasn't about results I had taken or science I had done, but when I attended a talk at a conference and realised the data had been taken with one of my machines.