Job for life

Diana Hodgins is not interested in designing mobile phones or faster cars. What fascinates the head of ETB is medical devices that mean the world to those who need them. Andrew Lee reports.

Dr. Diana Hodgins seems amused, bemused, exasperated and delighted in equal measure by the clamour for her time. European Technology for Business (ETB), the microsystems design company of which she is founder and managing director, is leading a major EU-wide push to develop new and potentially revolutionary medical devices.

When she is not in Brussels meeting the great and the good of the high-tech world, Hodgins is trying to cope with the flood of requests bombarding her e-mail inbox back in the Hertfordshire village from which ETB operates. ‘Can you write me a paper? Can you contribute an article? Would you like to talk at this conference, would you like to do this, that or the other? It’s all really good, and I don’t want to turn anyone down, but nobody will pay me to sit and answer all these e-mails. And we have got a business to run here.’

From the above, and the fact that it counts the likes of Siemens and Bosch as competitors, you might imagine that ETB has hundreds if not thousands on its payroll. In reality, it is safe to say that scores more people are employed to sort the mail at Siemens than make up ETB’s staff of 12 (soon to be 13, as it wants to recruit another engineer). This makes the company’s seat at the top table of European microsystems development all the more impressive, and Hodgins revels in it. ‘We are only 12 people, but we are the best. You would struggle to go into a company like Bosch and find as good and as focused a design team,’ she claimed.

Hodgins has accolades aplenty to back her up. Her work has brought her an MBE, the title of Woman Inventor of the Year and seats on a bewildering array of networks, steering committees and advisory boards regionally, nationally and in Europe. It is in the area of medical technology, specifically implants, that ETB is making most waves. ‘I found it the most fascinating area for microsystems,’ said Hodgins. ‘Everyone tells me how difficult the medical sector is to work in. We know that, because we’ve learned just what those difficulties are.’

These obstacles include the problem of gaining regulatory approval for a device and the reluctance of the notoriously cautious medical profession to adopt something new. The solution, according to Hodgins, is a basic rule of product development that many in the advanced technology community would do well to bear in mind: listen to your customer, which in ETB’s case means some of Europe’s leading medical specialists. ‘You have to bring them on-board early on, and to get peer review articles in journals from surgeons and clinicians who talk to each other on a global scale. We have learned that you have to have that credibility.’

The company’s work includes the design of an ‘intelligent catheter’ that can help people suffering from long-term urinary incontinence regain a more normal bladder function. If it’s racing cars and iPods you are after from an engineer, then Hodgins is not your woman. She makes a persuasive case, however, that hers is the work many of us will be glad of in the end.

‘Thirty per cent of the world’s population will suffer from incontinence at some point,’ said Hodgins. ‘It can happen to you in your 50s, it can happen earlier than that under some circumstances, and by God it can ruin your life.’ Hodgins recounted how one the UK’s most distinguished urologists took her to meet the people the catheter project aims to benefit. One of those patients, a woman roughly Hodgins’ own age, was paralysed by a slip on ice some 15 years earlier. As if being confined to a wheelchair was not cruel enough, the fall had also left her incontinent. The wheelchair she had learned to cope with, the woman told Hodgins, but the incontinence was a burden and an indignity too far. ‘It really brought it home to me that I don’t want to design mobile phones or a faster car. We’ll let everyone else do that.’

Another ETB project concerns a condition called dropped foot that affects stroke patients and makes it hard for them to walk normally. Using an ETB-designed three-axis accelerometer, microsystems implanted in the leg can help overcome this by sensing movement in the foot and transmitting an electrical pulse to the lower leg. ‘It’s a world beater, there’s nothing else like it,’ claimed Hodgins.

The catheter and leg implant are on their way through clinical trials and towards the market. But Hodgins believes they are just a foretaste of the advances that microsystems technology could bring to medical technology. The EU Framework VI project ETB is leading will, she claimed, open up major new opportunities. ‘It’s very exciting. We’re moving to functional stimulation of upper and lower limbs, a better artificial inter-urethral sphincter, a sphincter sensor and a sensor to measure brain pressure.’

It is common to hear people talk about technology’s potential to change lives, but with Hodgins and the rest of ETB’s engineers you feel the sense of purpose is more acute than most. ‘Anyone you speak to, inside or outside engineering, will immediately relate to the areas we are looking at. Stroke and incontinence are the types of condition that can happen to anyone at any time. Wouldn’t it be lovely if when you had a stroke someone said to you, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll give you some implants and you’ll be fine.”

Hodgins’ enthusiasm must have communicated itself to the poker-faced holders of Europe’s research funding purse strings when she led a delegation to convince them that a tiny Hertfordshire technology operation should lead the 26-partner project, comprising multinationals, leading researchers and other SMEs. ‘You’ve got to be damned good to compete in that arena,’ said Hodgins. ‘Putting together that proposal was probably the biggest risk we took as a business. We showed them what we had done so far, and told them, ‘This is what you’ve got already mate, this is what we’re going for.”

The eurocrats were impressed, and Hodgins admitted that even she found it hard to believe the position this left ETB in. ‘We run projects worth well in excess of E40m (£27m), which is incredible for a company with a tiddly little turnover. It’s a tremendous responsibility.’

It is also quite an achievement for a company just six years old, set up by Hodgins and her husband Denis, a fellow engineer, after several successful years of consultancy work. Before becoming a consultant following the birth of her daughter, Hodgins enjoyed a successful career with firms including BAE Systems, Graseby Dynamics and Neotronics. She was technical director of the project team that developed one of the first ‘electronic nose’ sensors, while her Phd formed the basis of ETB’s first product, a widely acclaimed solid-state gyroscope.

This work brought Hodgins her first taste of the scepticism of what she calls the ‘big boys’. She recounted how a senior executive from a major US multinational that is one of the world’s biggest players in gyroscope development rang her out of the blue after stumbling across details of the project on the internet. ‘This guy phoned to ask me why we were doing a gyroscope. He told me how difficult it was. I said, ‘Yes, thanks, I do know.’ He seemed amazed that some little company he’d never heard of was doing something that was supposed to compete on the world market.’

Hodgins’ reaction was typically forthright. ‘Well, why not? If we fail, who gives a monkey’s? We haven’t sold ourselves to anyone else, we haven’t told anybody that if they invest in us they will make a fortune. We just saw something interesting and thought we would give it a go.’

The fact that ETB has not ‘sold out’ to the quick-buck mentality of modern investment capital clearly matters to Hodgins. ‘Generally, hi-tech companies are told you have to do things quickly. To do them quickly you need lots of money. So you go to the venture capitalists, which is the standard route for small start-ups. We didn’t, and six years on we owe nobody anything.

‘We’re not millionaires but we are sustainable, which I think is unusual in a small high-tech company.’ ETB’s growth has come through reputation, canny use of available research funding and, crucially according to Hodgins, building a network of partner companies and organisations that can help it achieve its goals. ‘Any company, big or small, needs partners, because you will not achieve anything on your own. The big boys are in the same boat – they just don’t like to admit it so they call them sub-contractors. We have an incredibly good active partner base – something like 50 strong. There are companies bigger than us, smaller than us, multinationals and the best academics in Europe.’

Hodgins is evangelical about the ability of such networks to allow even the smallest firm to compete at the highest level. She is equally certain that the business model on which ETB runs gives the company the freedom to pursue its interests in areas such as the medical sector.

‘At no stage have we said we want to be millionaires next year so let’s put all our resources into the areas that could achieve that. If that was the case we would be a totally different type of company. The goal has never been to be rich, it’s to do something fascinating, and you couldn’t find a more interesting environment than this. I think all engineers love nothing more than the chance to get on with their work in something they enjoy.’

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