Accelerated development for healthcare technology

Ulster University research hub centralises expertise


Devices to monitor people for the warning signs of heart failure while people are in their own homes, novel new vital-signs measurement devices, and the ability to prototype them for initial testing within three weeks of outline concept are just a few of the highly advanced innovations and services to emerge from Ulster University’s new £2 million Health Technology Research Hub.

The hub centralises core expertise to support the rapid development of new healthcare technology with strong input from clinicians. Located within the Nanotechnology and Integrated Bioengineering Centre (NIBEC) in the school of engineering at Ulster’s Jordanstown campus, the hub combines the expertise contained within NIBEC as well as the collocated Connected Health Innovation Centre (CHIC), the BioDevices Lab, and the Centre for Advanced Cardiovascular Research (CACR), and the Eastern Corridor Medical Engineering Centre (ECME).

ECME is the most recent addition to the hub and is a cross-Border partnership between Ulster University, Dundalk IT, the Southern Trust (NI), University College Dublin, Dublin City University, and University of Highlands and Islands. The centre has been awarded €8.4 million in funding from the EU’s Interreg VA programme, managed by the Special EU Programmes Body.

Cross-Border centre

ECME’s aim is to create a cross-Border centre of research excellence within the field of cardiovascular medicine, with a particular focus on medical-grade wearables and associated remote-monitoring systems.

The centre will develop better models of heart disease care by creating a doctoral research centre, compromising 24 PhD students and developing generic platform solutions within the lucrative and growing remote patient monitoring market.

The new hub will enable doctoral researchers from ECME to collaborate with industry-led researchers from CHIC and clinicians from CACR. The rapid prototyping BioDevices Lab will provide equipment which can facilitate the conversion of ideas into working demonstrators in a matter of hours.

“Ulster University is at the forefront of multidisciplinary research in nanotechnology, advanced materials, integrated smart sensors, smart computing algorithms and data analytics to provide new technology that is already changing patients’ care pathways,” says NIBEC director Prof Jim McLaughlin.

“By bringing together knowledge and expertise within the new Health Technology Research Hub, we hope to improve research outcomes, optimise the potential of collaboration between researchers from industry and academia and put Ulster University in a strong position to bid for new research funding in international health technology,” he adds.

The BioDevices Lab is a strategic partnership between Invest Northern Ireland, Ulster University, Randox Laboratories and HeartSine Technologies. It offers expertise and state of the art equipment to assist companies to develop prototypes for the biomedical, engineering, electronic device and aerospace sectors.

“Developing technology platforms to help translate our world-class science and discovery to a device format as promptly as possible is essential for the very best design and performance,” says McLaughlin. “The lab can develop a prototype for a collaborating researcher or company to get a medical device into a clinician’s hands within three weeks of being presented with the concept.”

The Connected Health Innovation Centre is also funded by Invest Northern Ireland and is focused on business-led research in the area of connected health. The centre targets health-led research in computing and engineering in areas such as ehealth, digital health, telehealth, telemonitoring, disease management, and home-based care. Key research themes include vital signs sensing, integrated care, assisted living, and point-of-care diagnostics.

“CHIC brings 30 companies to the table with really good ideas for development,” says McLaughlin. “We bring our expertise to the mix and the centre gives industry a way to access the hub.”

Cardiac care devices

The CACR supports the clinical development of leading-edge research in the field of critical cardiac care devices. The centre facilitates research and the development of new technology platforms, thus accommodating the evolution of optimal therapeutic and diagnostic devices and systems.

“The CACR is very important as it brings in clinical leaders in the field. Ulster University’s research in the connected health arena is recognised as world-leading and Northern Ireland is a recognised leader internationally in the development of new methodologies and treatments for sudden cardiac death by combining the application of fundamental science and engineering into the clinical setting and the centre builds on that.”

McLaughlin believes that the health innovation hub’s potential to bring research on new healthcare technologies that have an impact on society from its earliest stages through to the commercialisation stage and beyond is of key importance.

“For example, NIBEC is now a 100-researcher-strong, internationally leading and innovation-led centre which has generated 45 patents and fostered the creation of three spin-out companies – Intelesens, HeartSine and Heartscape. Together these three spin-out companies are currently valued at almost £100 million [€113 million] with over 250 skilled employees. They produce medical innovations which make a global impact on health costs and individual patients’ lives.”

The hub is also embarking on a specific initiative to assist the development of future spin-outs. “We are establishing a hatcheries programme to help people work up their early-stage concepts and test them to see if there is commercial potential in them. The hatcheries programme will allow a researcher to put together a one-page business plan and see if it would stack up. The Technology Transfer Office will help them develop the idea if it does have potential.”