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You are here: BioMedTech Owlstone creating ‘cancer breathalyser’ spin-out

Owlstone creating ‘cancer breathalyser’ spin-out


Cambridge UK nanotechnology business Owlstone is spinning out a new MedTech company to commercialise a revolutionary breathalyser that can detect cancer and other diseases.

The monitor could literally prove the kiss of life for millions if the early successes from worldwide feasibility studies are followed through.

Co-founder Billy Boyle told Business Weekly that Owlstone will be raising significant fresh capital for the new spin-out from sector-specific funds in the healthcare and BioMedTech arenas. “It’s a work in progress but is likely to be anything from $3-$5 million,” he said.

The spin-out move will allow Owlstone’s globally successful chemical detection nanochip business to forge ahead unaffected in several other industry segments while Boyle oversees the massive international potential for the new health monitor.

Boyle said: “We’ve had tremendous successes in the initial feasibility studies taking place across the globe and that has informed our decision to spin out a standalone new venture.”

The young entrepreneur was prompted to pursue potential healthcare applications for the dime-sized nanochip when his girlfriend (now his wife) was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer.

It drove home the need for much earlier detection to improve the prospects of beating the disease and extensive research brought the realisation that Owlstone’s existing chemical detector – originally used by the US government as a counter-terrorism device after 9/11 – could be adapted as a chip of life.

Early feasibility studies have backed his hunch: But Boyle says there is massive headroom in the technology in terms of miniaturisation for smartphone compatibility which would make the detector feasible in the home and even on the road – away from a strictly medical arena such as doctor’s surgery or hospital.

He said: “We are working on making the world’s smallest, most portable and most effective handheld breathalyser for medical testing. And not just for cancer. The institutions and research teams trialling our technology believe it can be successful in early detection of a range of diseases and conditions – including diabetes, TB, COPD and many more.”

Hot gospellers for the technology have formed into a global choir. Already trialling the monitor are researchers at Menssana Research, the University of Warwick, the University of Amsterdam – as part of a consortium called UBIOPRED – the University Florida, University of New South Wales, VU Medisch Centrum, the University of Ulm and Imperial.

Boyle says: “We are using our existing instruments for discovery i.e. clinical researchers are using it to find the markers of disease. These instruments can be used in a clinical setting – but the long term vision is to create a handheld device that can be used in the home - a breathalyzer for disease.

“As well as cancers, scientists have found markers for asthma, stomach ulcers, diabetes, kidney disease, liver disease, IBS, lactose malbsorption and more conditions.”

The quality of Owlstone’s technology was recognised when the company won $120k for its UltraFaims spectrometer chip in the Nokia sensing XChallenge.

Boyle said: “The Nokia Sensing XCHALLENGE and Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE are helping crystalize our efforts to use our sensor technology for medical diagnosis. The competitions have also created a great framework for collaboration and forging the right partnerships.”

Boyle and his co-founders Andrew Koehl and David Ruiz-Alonso were researchers in Cambridge University’s Engineering Department when they teamed up to develop and commercialise the idea of the novel sensor technology that Koehl was developing for his PhD.

In 2004, after securing initial funding, their PhDs were put on 'hold' and they started Owlstone. In late 2004, the first working sensor demonstrated basic functionality and Owlstone started expanding and Ashley Wilks joined as chief systems officer.

As the technology was maturing Owlstone also expanded its management team to drive commercialisation. In 2006, Bret Bader, CEO, and Mark Brennan, EVP of Homeland Defense, joined the team. Both were former business heads for Smiths Detection, world leader in chemical sensors for homeland defence and military markets, which was the initial target for Owlstone’s technology.

Since then Owlstone has commercialised products in three different markets – industrial process control, scientific Instrumentation and defence – and has over 100 customers in the US, Europe and Asia.