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Scaling up stem-cell technology – Africa Smith de Diego

Date published: 23/05/18

Scaling up stem-cell technology

  • Name:  Africa Smith de Diego
  • Current Organisation: University of Leeds
  • Current Position: PhD Student
  • Secondment organisation: Reliance Precision

My name is Africa Smith de Diego and I am currently a second year PhD student at the CDT in Tissue Engineering & Regenerative Medicine, University of Leeds. My PhD project consists in building a medical device to deliver rapid-label free separation of stem cells from bone marrow for autologous stem cell therapy. Since my project is mostly focusing on the scale-up of this technology rather than a proof-of concept, I have been really interested in learning more about manufacturing and the hurdles that I will need to clear to reach a higher technology readiness level for this technology.

From concepts to developing technology

During my training, I have taken an interest in the classification of medical devices, the regulations that must be met and the different steps to commercialisation. However, I feel like I still don’t know much about the practicalities of it. University research is often based on proof of concepts leading to intellectual property (IP) protection rather than the scale-up of these technologies. In my case, the IP on this technology has already been obtained and I am in charge of developing this technique to make it more attractive to potential venture capital firms. Therefore, I feel that spending time in a company would really help me understand more how to move on from concept to development of a device.

For this reason, I have chosen to do a secondment at Reliance Precision. This company is involved in finding bespoke solutions for clients in projects ranging from concept to manufacturing. This is a great opportunity for me to learn more about the pathway to commercialisation of a device, how the departments responsible for each of these stages are coordinated and how to get clients interested in these services. These are all skills that will help me consider important parameters to take into account during my PhD in order to prepare for manufacturing and to make my device more attractive to future investors.

A new perspective on industry

I am now in the middle of my secondment at Reliance Precision Limited. One of the things that I have learnt is how to approach new potential customers and identify the ways these customers can add value to their projects. For this, it is essential to assess the commercial viability of the project to ensure it will be mutually beneficial for both parties.

I also went to a couple of research conferences to learn more about the strategic importance of future technologies. As a student, I have gone to many conferences to present my work and see what the scientific community is doing. However, this has given me a different outlook and has helped me gain a better understanding of the interaction between research and industry as well as which technologies are more likely to be implemented in the next few years.

I have also been helping with knowledge sharing and skills development. I was responsible for the preparation of small presentations to help the Engineering and Sales team members gain a better understanding of the biological challenges that impact medical device designs. I now appreciate how important it is to share knowledge and work collaboratively with different teams, so that they can apply their expertise to new areas and think outside the box. This makes the teams more effective and increases their chances of success.  As a PhD student, I am used to presenting my work to specialists in my field and this has helped me to tailor my presentations to a wide range of audience. This will be an invaluable skill for future public engagement opportunities.

For the rest of my secondment, I am looking forward to getting involved in more design/development projects and continuing to support skills development within the wider team.

A renewed sense of focus

I really enjoyed my time at Reliance Precision Limited as I had the chance to see the different departments of the company such as sales, publicity, engineering, production and testing. This company was a very exciting environment to work in as they are involved in a wide variety of fields and offer multiple services such as consulting, testing, product design and manufacturing.

One of the highlights of this secondment was the opportunity to talk to the directors of the different departments and learn more about how they are managed (such as the Technical Director and Managing Director). I also gained insight into how continuous improvement is achieved and how employees can have an input in improving the way the company works.

Another highlight was having the chance to attend enquiry meetings concerning the selection of new projects based on future sales volume, the client’s cash flow and their fit within the company’s “sweet spot”. Most projects take years to accomplish, so it is important to take into account all these factors to minimise the risks and ensure maximum returns leading to client satisfaction.

Overall, this placement has given me an insight into how a medium-sized family owned company works and has confirmed my decision to pursue a career in industry as an engineer in charge of translating research into commercial products. Furthermore, I was able to improve my writing and presenting skills by giving presentations to non-specialist audiences, which will be useful for future public engagement opportunities.

I would definitely recommend the Translate: Me secondment scheme to anyone who is looking to have an experience in industry before deciding whether their next career move should be in academia or a private company. Finally, I would like to thank all the employees at Reliance Precision for their help and especially to Dr Ruth Brown for mentoring me during this secondment as well as the Translate: Me team for giving me this opportunity.