independent

Wednesday 23 April 2014

'It feels great making a product that will save people's lives'

A device developed by an Irish duo is being used all over the world to prevent bedsores, and has massive potential for future growth

INNOVATORS: From left, Michael Lawler, Sean Gallagher and Noel Muldowney at the centre in IT Carlow. Photo: Tony Gavin

AS MANY as 60,000 people die each year in the United States as a result of complications caused by bedsores. It's a shocking statistic.

One Irish company which is helping to solve this global problem is Carlow-based VascoCare Medical Limited. Set up in 2009 by founders Michael Lawler and Noel Muldowney, and located in the Enterprise & Research Incubation Centre on the grounds of the Carlow Institute of Technology, VascoCare designs and produces a revolutionary range of pressure care products for use in operating theatres, hospital wards and nursing homes.

These foam-like pads are specially moulded in the shape of a person's head, arm, leg or foot. While soft and comfortable enough to relieve pressure while giving the body part something to rest on, they are also firm enough to help restrict unwanted movement, for example during a lengthy surgical operation.

A small Irish start up, VascoCare Medical has much to be proud of. It already employs six people and its products are sold in 34 countries around the world. Furthermore, turnover looks set to reach €1m within the next 18 months.

However, its real impact has less to do with making money and more to do with helping save lives.

"Bedsores are a huge problem worldwide," explains Noel. "More than one million people each year in the United States develop bedsores. The financial cost to the US Heath Service amounts to more than $1bn," he adds.

Bedsores, or pressure ulcers, develop when a person's weight rests against a hard surface. For example, when a bony body part such as a heel or hip is left pressed against a hard surface such as a bed in an operating theatre; it exerts pressure on the body part, thereby cutting off the flow of blood and oxygen to that area.

Such constant pressure prevents the capillaries or tiny blood vessels, from doing their job of delivering oxygen and nutrients to the skin.

"If the skin is deprived of essential oxygen and nutrients for even as little as an hour, tissue cells begin to die and bedsores begin to form," explains Michael, showing some graphic images of how they begin as red patches and gradually develop into bedsores if not attended to.

Bedsores are common in patients who are elderly or whose mobility is reduced. They do not normally occur in patients who are mobile or conscious because they will tend to move their bodies to relieve such growing pressure.

Noel grew up in Kildare. He studied production engineering in University of Limerick and later spent 13 years designing medical and healthcare devices with international healthcare firm Trulife in Dublin.

However, it was his own personal experience that would lead him to develop an even keener interest in patient care and patient positioning aids in particular.

"My daughter had a medical condition which required her to have multiple surgeries in Crumlin Children's Hospital," Noel explains. "As a result, I began to look more closely at how I could improve the care of patients in such circumstances."

By then, he had set up his own business, Clanscad, which helped companies develop prototypes for new products. It was at this point that he and Michael met.

Michael, who is also from Kildare, had studied industrial design in University of Limerick and the College of Art and Design in Dublin.

He had spent many years working in design and manufacturing companies both in Ireland and Australia.

"When I learned of Noel's experience with his daughter and his desire to develop improved patient care products, it just seemed the right thing to do to work together," explains Michael.

And so the pair joined forces, combining their skills and expertise to help develop a new range of medical positioning aids. In the beginning, they continued to work in their own businesses during the day. In the evenings, they would meet to work on designs for their new product range.

"It was a funny sight," explains Michael. "There we were, working away in Noel's workshop in his back garden where we would take casts of each other's body parts in order to create the moulds. I'm sure people might have thought it looked strange," he laughs. In 2009, they set up VascoCare Medical with €5,000 investment from each of them.

"We knew it wouldn't get us far but at least it did get us started," says Noel.

Enterprise Ireland provided the pair with a business mentor to help them progress their idea. Terry Sullivan, former MD of Clonmel Healthcare, became their mentor and later became non-executive chair of the company.

In addition, they brought together a strong medical advisory panel which included a variety of highly qualified medical professionals who helped provide them with specific clinical information on development and testing.

"Because our products are classified as Class 1 medical devices, they are expensive to manufacture," explains Noel. "So once we had our new prototypes designed, we had to raise a further €300,000 from a number of private 'angel investors' in order to bring our products to market."

In 2011, the company launched its first products which included a range of head supports and positioners. In 2012, it rolled out positioning products to support other areas of the body including knees, feet, arms and torso.

Today, the company's products are sold to the healthcare industry through a network of local distributors in Ireland, the UK, Scotland, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Australia and NZ.

The size of the market potential is driven largely by the number of operations performed in various regions of the world. "Approximately 50 million operations are performed in the EU each year, with the same number being carried out in the US. So there is huge potential for us to grow," explains Michael.

The pair recently received a major boost to their efforts when Scharerer Medical, a Swiss-based manufacturer of high-end operating tables and medical accessories, chose to include VascoCare's positioning aids in its company's product catalogue.

As the business grew, the two entrepreneurs were again successful in raising investment by way of a combination of angel investors and Enterprise Ireland funding.

"At the moment, we are seeking to raise a further €500,000 to help us expend our product range as well as our market reach," says Noel.

In 2013, Noel and Michael attended Arab Health, a large Health Expo in Dubai, where they got the opportunity to showcase their products to the Arab world. As a result, enquiries began to flood in from distributors in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Oman.

More recently, they have received strong interest from distributors in Egypt, India, China, Hong Kong and Japan. So the future looks bright for the med-tech entrepreneurs.

However, developing products for the global healthcare market is not without its challenges. "It's a costly and intense process which involved considerable market research and consultation with the medical professionals across multiple markets," explains Noel.

"Our products are definitely disruptive in the market and are more advanced than anything else on the market," he adds.

'Our products are definitely disruptive in the market and are more advanced than anything else'

For that reason, there has been a lead-in period when Noel and Michael have had to educate the markets as to the benefits of their new product range. "Similarly, given the quality of our products, we are often competing against cheaper, less effective products and therefore we have had to really focus on selling the advantages of our products," explains Michael.

Picking the right distributors too, has been an important process for the company in order to maximise penetration into international markets.

While manufacturing is currently outsourced, the pair are keen, in time, to bring this in-house. For the moment, the pair are busy developing new products.

"Many surgeries involving the back or spine are carried out in a prone position, where the patient is lying face down on the operating theatre, so we are now working on a range of supports for these types of situations," explains Noel.

They are also working on other products including a range of aids and supports for repetitive-strain injuries, as well as cushions for wheelchair users.

Noel Muldowney and Michael Lawler have a great love for what they do. Their combined experience in both product design and production engineering make them a formidable duo.

Like all entrepreneurs, the pair find great satisfaction in running their business. However, their greatest satisfaction comes from knowing that they are not only helping improve the quality of patient outcomes and patient care but that they are making products that will literally help save thousands of lives every year.

What greater motivation could anyone have to start a business.

Sunday Independent

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