Engineers can save lives. We don’t think about that a lot of the time. Young people going into medicine for example, do so in the hope that they will be able to help people, to save lives. Do budding engineers think along similar lines? They should if the career of Jimmy Eaton-Evans is anything to go by. Currently developing a simpler, less risky way to cauterise gastro-oesophageal varices, Eaton-Evans has a track record of invention in healthcare. He has been working for multinational companies for much of his career and now he’s striking out on his own. Liver disease is on the rise and Eaton-Evans thinks that he and his team have come up with a solution to one of the dangerous complications that can occur in someone with the condition. “Gastro-oesophageal varices occur when blood flow through the liver is restricted due to diseased tissue,” he said. “This causes blood to back up in the portal vein and redirects flow through veins located at the top of the stomach and in the wall of the oesophagus. These blood vessels are unable to withstand the increase in blood flow and pressure, causing them to bulge or even rupture.” When this happens, it’s very serious and it's difficult and risky to treat. According to Eaton-Evan, “We’re trying to come up with a better treatment that will improve patient outcomes and reduce the overall cost of treatment. Our therapy will be delivered endoscopically and is designed to ablate the blood vessel without causing damage to the oesophageal mucosa. We think this will improve patient outcomes and reduce overall treatment costs.” It's both a potentially revolutionary healthcare solution and a big business idea which came about as a result of Eaton-Evans’s participation in the BioInnovate Ireland fellowship, an affiliate of Stanford’s renowned Biodesign programme. BioInnovate Ireland is one of the ways in which Ireland is promoting an indigenous medtech sector, by offering talented individuals currently being employed by multinational companies a chance to explore opportunities for their own medical device focused entrepreneurial venture.

Mechanical design engineering

Eaton-Evans has a long track record of engineering for healthcare. He graduated from the University of Limerick in 2003 with a degree in mechanical design engineering. Three years later, he was awarded a PhD for research conducted in collaboration with Boston Scientific in Galway, which focused on experimental stress analysis of intravascular stents and balloons. This research formed the basis for his postdoctoral research in the field of stent graft design and analysis at the University of Oxford. The project was focused on designing a highly durable, minimally invasive device using a nano-composite polymeric material and principles taken from deployable structures technology. After a period of two-and-a-half years, Eaton-Evans transitioned to a product development role at Fisher and Paykel Healthcare (Auckland) in 2009. He gained industrial experience working on a ground-breaking project to design a market leading and multi-award-winning device for the delivery of respiratory support to neonate patients in the acute care setting. “It was an incredible experience working on device to help tiny babies, some not bigger than a block of butter,” he said. “I worked closely with nurses and parents to engineer a solution that improved therapy delivery, making it easier on both the baby and the caregiver.” Three years ago, he returned to Ireland to join the design team at Aerogen (Galway). Working within this fast paced and highly innovative company, he pursued best practices in product development to identify and target unmet user needs and deliver a number of new devices to market. It was there he came across the next phase in his career. "While working in Aerogen, I had the opportunity to take part in an industry workshop which was delivered by BioInnovate Ireland at NUI Galway,” he said. “The BioInnovate industry workshop challenges you to think differently about medical device development. It gives you the opportunity to delve into a wide variety of areas that are relevant to medical device development including, how to identify unmet clinical needs, rapid concept development and business planning. The workshop opened my eyes to the number of unmet clinical needs that exist and the opportunity that they might provide for my own technology as a medical device start-up.” Eaton-Evans decided to apply for the full BioInnovate fellowship.

BioInnovate fellowship programme

"It was a risk I suppose, especially from a financial point of view; but a lot can happen with a bit of confidence and belief in yourself. I knew from my experience working in industry that there were lots of unmet clinical needs waiting to be addressed and the BioInnovate programme would give me the opportunity to identify one that was commercially viable.” Eaton-Evans was given the opportunity to go over to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota for the clinical immersion section of the BioInnovate programme. “That was an incredible experience,” he said. “My team was looking for problems in the gastrointestinal space. We spent seven weeks observing the world's best clinicians and medical practices. People travel from all over the world to attend the Mayo Clinic, it gave us an excellent insight into the field.” His team identified hundreds of unmet clinical needs which they eventually ended up narrowing down to one that he is now developing. “The BioInnovate fellowship gives people the opportunity join a multidisciplinary team that is immersed clinically to identify unmet clinical needs within a particular clinical speciality,” he explained. “The team seeks out areas that require improvements to patient care, with the aim of developing technologies to fix those problems.” His experience as a mechanical engineer was invaluable, especially during the design phase. “I had been through the process a number of times, from starting with a blank sheet of paper through to launching new devices to markets worldwide.”

Enterprise Ireland funding

For Eaton-Evans, there was a challenge in considering every aspect of his team’s idea. They had an invention, but would the market want it? “Investors are typically looking for a ten-fold return and you have to ask, can a product deliver that? Will the market support it? If not, then it’s back to the drawing board. This approach was designed to ensure that if the proposed solution was going to fail, that it failed early. After almost 10 months of research, we singled out the need on which we’re focusing now.” Having completed the fellowship, Eaton-Evans is now part of a small team that was awarded two years of funding through Enterprise Ireland’s commercialisation funding programme. They are in the process of designing, building and testing their device. “We have just completed successful proof of principle testing for our proposed solution. The data we obtained through this in vivo testing will form the basis for the next phase of work that will cumulate in a rigorous study that we hope will provide safety and efficacy data for our device. It will form the kernel for our business case, which we will use to attract the investment required to bring our solution to market,” he concluded.