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Interview - Ian Quirk

Meet Ian Quirk, CEO and co-founder of Active Needle Technology. Active Needle builds on technology developed at Dundee University to provide biopsy or injection needles with ultrasound movement. Benefits include increased visibility and penetration, which would make needle interventions advance to the next level.

Active Needle has just opened a funding round on Crowdcube. You can register your interest or sign up for investing here.


It’s a pleasure to have you here, Ian. Would you give us a glimpse into Active Needle’s origins?

Thank you, it’s great to be here. A lot of the time you have a technology looking to find an application. But this was a technology and a problem that came together right at the beginning of the story. The problem was how you can image needles better on ultrasound scans. The ultrasonic group at Dundee University said what they would do is to see if they could use the Doppler mode on an ultrasounds scanner to pick up the moving of an ultrasonically vibrating needle. They conducted a lot of research around that and developed the concept, but that was a long way from something that you could use on a commercial basis, and needed to be optimized. In 2016 we set the company up initially to commercialise the highly visible nature of the needle on ultrasound scans in medical applications. The original problem back up at Dundee was with anaesthetic needles. But for a start-up that wasn’t the right place to begin. What you need is a smaller volume, high-margin product, so that you can cope with the numbers. In anaesthesiology, there are billions of needles sold every year, and in a start-up you don’t necessarily want to be selling millions of items in the first six months. So, we decided to change the focus to biopsy, which took a few years to develop. We spent a lot of time testing it, although we didn’t need to do a human clinical trial, as it’s a low-risk medical device.

What is the specific upside that you bring in the biopsy needle market?

The key points are that our product is designed in the same way as other needles, we believe they will be much better in the clinic and you can also make it for the same price as other biopsy needles. So there are good reasons to use the device and no reasons not to. It’s a razor-razorblade sales model. It’s not more expensive to use than a conventional needle, but then you get this extra functionality. We got the CE mark earlier this year in May and we’re gearing up to start sales on that.

And how is your product differentiating on the technical side?

Other companies are trying to improve the imaging and then interpolate where the needle has gone based on its trajectory. I was speaking to an oncologist a little while ago and he said that when these things bend, they of course bend away from where you want them to go. Needles bend by as much as five millimetres. But when you’re targeting a one-centimetre lesion then you’re just outside the target. Needle tracking won’t affect that, it would just tell you that it’s gone off-course. What’s different with our device is that penetration is actually straighter. The penetration force is lower, which means that as you go into the skin the bending is lower and the trajectory is maintained. And the other important thing compared to the competition is that if you want to have a system from a manufacturer of ultrasound machines, you have to buy a new ultrasound machine. Ours is just a box that sits on the desk, it doesn’t plug into an ultrasound machine. The ultrasound scanner, whatever it is, just detects the motion, so it’s completely machine-agnostic.

The Active Needle technology offers several unique advantages. An additional feature is that, while other technologies have a significant amount of material remaining in the syringe, Active Needle has less wasted volume. In doing so, it reduces the variation of how much is injected. This reduces, in turn, the number of animals needed.

Are you applying your technology to other products at the moment?

We were asked effectively by AstraZeneca and GSK to develop an improved system for their pre-clinical injections of drugs and vaccines. So, when they do the rodent tests before they get to humans, they waste a lot of material that can be very expensive: £5000/ml. And there’s a problem with accuracy, they use more animals than they should. So we developed for AstraZeneca and GSK a high-performance system where you lose almost no material at all (2% the loss of the conventional system). And it’s also much more accurate, so the number of animals required is smaller. That is not an ultrasonic needle though.

Is this only about animals or do you see the potential to work with them on other applications?

It could be the basis of a mass-vaccination system, safe and more effective than the conventional systems that are used in lower-income countries. And these companies are interested in talking about that with us as well. In particular, you would have a reservoir of drugs. Then there’s a very rapid procedure to change the needle, and you can be much more accurate in what you’re giving and lose much less material. By doing so, you can just have a line of people and vaccinate them quickly by just changing the needle after each injection. It reduces the possibility of needle-stick injury too.

This is quite a crucial stage for you, as you are a pre-revenue start-up that is going to embark on the market journey. How do you intend to deal with this transition?

We are going to focus on a soft launch of the biopsy needle. The idea is to make sure that we have absolutely the right offering because the first product from a new company has to be perfect before it goes to the mass market. So you need to make sure that what we’ve got is right not just in terms of device, but in terms of the training package around that as well. Because there’s a bit of a learning curve in setting up the ultrasound machine. And then we’ll be working with renowned medics who will stand up on a podium and say they’ve used the product. It’s a cautious approach, but it helps us also build a body of evidence around the utility and effectiveness of the device. So we’ll also be looking to collect some health economic data as well because we think that the main clinical benefits are that you can see it and it’s straighter. But what we think it means in terms of clinical performance is fewer repeated biopsies. Up to one in five are repeated, and it costs a couple of thousand pounds to do a biopsy: you need a doctor with all the support staff, then the sample is sent away to a laboratory where a lab technician prepares it, and then another doctor, a pathologist has to read the slide and report back. And by that time, if they missed the target, the patient has gone home. So it’s very expensive to repeat these things. This will make a difference especially in the insured markets such as the States. And it will be important to collect that data as well for the second phase, the hard launch. For now, it’s a controlled launch to collect the data, make sure that we have the right device. Now we have some very good distributors lined up and ready to go in Italy. Then we’re talking to a UK/Ireland distributor and we will also look at centres in Germany and Holland as well. So, we’re selecting very carefully some high-quality centres that can give good feedback and training centres too. Those are the reasons for having a soft launch.

Ultrasound imaging of an Active Needle biopsy.

Although the company is clearly solving problems with a well-planned route to market, there were several technical challenges to tackle. Having delivered well on previous projects, this translated into a number of grants won.

Tattooing is another commercial application that you are considering tackling. How would this fit into your development as a company?

The big differentiator here is a low pain, lower trauma product, which is great for the client and for the artists as the skin will remain less swollen for longer. We think that eventually it might be a spinout or a subsidiary company because the marketing effort and sales model are completely different. There is a lot of commonality in the device because you’re just repurposing something that you already have, so it makes sense from the technology point of view, but commercially it’s such a different market. Also, we don’t want people coming for a clinical needle being bombarded by tattoo images.

The next step is the fundraise then.

The whole team is really energised because we’re going to market. The other thing is that we’ve won quite a lot of Innovate UK prizes and grants, with a success rate of over 50% in our applications, which is very high for grant competitions. But the key thing now is to align all our efforts to fundraising and finally commercialise our product.


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