Age concern

David Leakey, head of Norgren’s European medical division, is addressing a vital issue: the fact that more of us are living longer. Andrew Lee reports.

The old ‘three score years and 10’ rule of thumb for a decent lifespan may need to be revised. The wizards of demographics tell us that more of us are going to get older – much older – before our time is up.

But if, as all informed predictions suggest, significantly more people survive into their 80s and 90s they are unlikely to do so in perfect health. Care of an ageing population is one of the most pressing problems facing advanced economies, and new medical and care technologies will need to go a long way to finding an answer.

Norgren, the UK motion and fluid control group, has seen the writing on the wall. For the past few years the company has mounted a concerted push to develop the medical technologies that many of us will be relying on two or three decades down the line.

‘It was clear to us that this was one sector that, if it hadn’t exploded already, was about to,’ said David Leakey, Norgren’s European medical sector head.

Leakey is the man charged by Norgren, part of UK engineering group IMI, with spearheading its ambitions in the medical technology sector. A 20-year veteran of the company, he came to the sector after a career that had ‘taken me into just about every industry you could think of’.

The medical community, however, has its own unique demands and culture, and Leakey quickly found himself on a steep learning curve. ‘I spent quite a few evenings with local professors in their laboratories to help me get a view of what the business drivers are for the end user,’ he said.

Leakey and Norgren were not approaching the medical sector from a standing start. The company has been involved in medical technology ‘for at least 20 years’, said Leakey. Now, however, it was clear that societal and business trends merited a significant escalation in Norgren’s ambitions.

Where to focus those efforts so that they most closely matched Norgren’s ability to provide technological solutions was Leakey’s most pressing concern. ‘We looked at everything from dental to heart disease. You name it, we assessed it,’ said Leakey.

It soon became clear that Norgren would start from a particularly strong base in two key sectors of medical technology.

The first is respiratory care, embracing two of healthcare’s most demanding applications – emergency ventilation during intensive careand anaesthesia.

Norgren has significant expertise in the delivery and regulation of gas, with the valves and regulators needed for the ultra-precise administration of oxygen and other medical gases in critical scenarios such as the operating theatre.

Norgren’s second chosen area of focus covers the less immediate but no less crucial area of in-vitro diagnostics – the handling of minute amounts of blood and other human samples that, in combination with reagents, can predict the health of the human body, not just now but in the future.

Leakey believes both these fields of application offer significant opportunities for Norgren and considerable potential benefits to those of us – surely at some time most of us – who will need such technology.

The requirement for respiratory care increases sharply in an ageing population, and as the number of elderly people grows so will the necessity for respiratory devices, both in hospital and the home.

Leakey also predicted that an increasingly technology-savvy population will be unwilling to settle for second best from the equipment used to treat them. ‘As people get better educated as to what is available they expect better healthcare if they are suffering from respiratory diseases,’ he said.

The company’s involvement in diagnostic technology will become increasingly vital in the healthcare of the not so distant future, Leakey claimed.

As science rolls back the frontiers of knowledge in areas such as DNA testing and mapping of the human genome, the scope for technologies that can tap into the treasure-trove of medical data they contain is likely to increase exponentially.

That will inevitably mean coming up with automated testing systems that can be applied efficiently across the community. ‘The sector is looking to companies such as Norgren to come up with the technology to automate that process and make it much more readily available to a wider population,’ said Leakey.

‘DNA processing today is pretty much done by hand. We’re making sure that what we’re developing today can be used in five or 10 years time for very small amounts of material that can be used in pre-diagnosis. As well as measuring what’s wrong with you today, we want to know what’s going to be wrong with you in 10 years.’

Leakey’s examination of the medical sector quickly revealed the fact that Norgren, for all its strengths in fluid and gas control, had a missing piece in its medical jigsaw. The company recently moved to plug that gap with the acquisition of FAS, a Swiss hi-tech specialist in sub-miniature solenoid valves. Leakey said the purchase of the Swiss company was a vital part of the wider ambitions in medical technology of the Norgren group.

‘The costs facing our healthcare systems are such that they need to start moving some of the operations that have traditionally only been possible in laboratories and hospitals wards out of those locations and closer to the patient,’ said Leakey.

‘Getting closer to the patient means miniaturisation. We have to take a laboratory system that is the size of a desk and transfer that technology down to something the size of a laptop that can be used in a doctor’s surgery.

‘Driving technology smaller is absolutely vital to the whole of the medical industry, and that drive to miniaturisation was the key to filling a product gap within the Norgren range,’ said Leakey.

Enter FAS. The Geneva-based firm, founded 30 years ago and enjoying strong growth ever since, had carved out a niche after launching the world’s first 15mm solenoid valve. Earlier this year its sub-miniature 8mm valve, called Chipsol, appeared on the market and Norgren – a long-standing customer of the Swiss company – made an offer to its two founders to buy FAS.

Norgren was not interested in FAS for its medical applications alone. The Swiss firm’s technology fits neatly with a number of areas of the UK group’s business, enabling it to add the new acquisition’s miniature valves to its existing products in the 22m and 32mm range.

The ability to dispense at micro and, increasingly, nano-quantities, will have applications in areas as diverse as semiconductor manufacturing, ink-jet printing, textile machinery and systems for general scientific laboratories.

But Leakey, with his particular interest in the medical arena, was heavily involved in running the rule over FAS, and liked what he saw.

‘It was a very good acquisition for us in a number of ways, but its expertise in the medical sector was a key area of interest.’

Bolstered by FAS, Norgren believes the case for its technology will be stronger when it takes products to its customers – the world’s big medical device and systems manufacturers.

As with drug developers and everyone else working in the medical sphere, companies bringing new products to market face a test and approval regime more formidable and lengthy than in most industries.

Although Norgren, as a supplier of systems and components, does not have to directly face fearsome regulators such as the US FDA, its customers do. ‘Our organisation must have the patience required to get involved in the development of new medical devices,’ said Leakey. ‘In the pneumatics market you’re looking at a gestation period of 12-18 months. In the medical field it’s not untypical for a new instrument coming to market to take up to five years.’

Leakey, for his part, is happy to take the long view and finds the medical sector a fascinating area to work in, both in and out of the office. ‘It makes good party talk,’ he admitted.

‘The thing about medical is that absolutely everybody can relate to advances in devices and technologies that will help us live more healthy lives into our 80s and 90s.’

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