NORTHUMBRIA University’s Nurture Programme aims to help companies get over the early hurdles associated with R&D. John Hill finds out more about how it works.
UNIVERSITY academic Dr Vincent Reid had a product idea kicking around in his head for several years, but it took a little support to make it happen.
The developmental psychology lecturer at Durham University had first come up with the idea of creating a sling to reduce the symptoms of infant colic while he was handling its effects on his own children, and through his work at the university he’d run into a number of parents with similar issues.
“I kept seeing mothers coming into my laboratory with problems, and I thought there was a way to overcome this”, he said. “I got the venture capital for it, and started work on a sling to see if putting infants in a certain position would help them get to sleep quicker.
“The type of design used has been shown to be very effective. It’s taken me three years to do this, but I’m employed as a full-time academic, and this is basically my additional part-time job. I’ve employed one person full-time for that period who’s been going out and doing research. However, without the Nurture programme, this wouldn’t have happened.”
The Nurture programme is a collaborative research and development scheme set up by Northumbria University. It is co-funded by the university, One North East and the European Regional Development Fund, and handled by the university’s Centre for Design Research. Nurture offers small and medium-sized business the chance to realise their ideas for products in the health and wellbeing market by dealing with the product research and helping with prototyping.
Typically, a client who successfully applies for the programme will explain the concept to the programme team, who will go away and conduct a feasibility study for the project including tasks such as observational research and market evaluation. While this stage is fully funded by the programme, the client will provide an increasing proportion of the funding as the product passes through phases such as concept generation, concept development, prototype specification, prototyping and production specification. While the Sleep Sling prototypes were mocked up in-house in the Centre for Design Research, Nurture often employs the services of companies such as e3d, Newcastle’s RCID, Amtech, Paragon and the Business and Innovation Centre for specialist design services and prototyping.
Bruce Watson, who is enterprise business manager for the centre, said: “The risk with all this talk about the state of the economy is that the natural reaction among small businesses is to batten down the hatches and get every penny from their existing products. You forget about innovation, so all the time you’re slipping backwards and companies who are bringing products to market are stepping ahead.
“The first thing that suffers is the R&D budget, so the argument is that we need to put something in place to maintain and promote innovation. Essentially, we look at situations where a company might be interested in creating something but doesn’t have the resources or skills to do it. We can work with them on a collaborative project, give them access to expertise they might not have and help nudge something along that they’ve thought about but never got around to doing because they’re focused on the day-to-day.”
Vincent Reid had set up a company called Developmental Solutions in 2007, and won the 2008 Science and Technology category at the North East universities’ business planning competition Blueprint.
He worked with Nurture over a period of seven months around 2009 as the product was pitched to mothers, prototyped and tested. Reid is currently talking to large manufacturers about getting it onto shop shelves in the next two years.
He said: “When you have a baby that’s fussing and crying, it’s a very stressful situation. You put the baby on your shoulder, engage it and bounce it around. It’s very labour intensive and knackering.
“Basically what the sling does is incorporate three or four different things that are all known and mentioned in pediatric literature, but never combined before. Infants focus on human faces, but their visual abilities are very poor and blurry at around 12 to 14 weeks. The sling puts the baby at a distance from the parent which is optimal for focusing, and that leads to a reduction in crying because the infant knows you are focused on them.
“The angle of the sling slightly arches the infant’s back, which causes the stomach to extend slightly in case the crying is related to a gastro-intestinal problem. The design also puts the legs on either side of a seat in front of the mother. It means the legs can’t be brought up to the stomach on reflex, which folds the stomach in on itself and exacerbates the colic.
“The final thing is to ensure there’s body contact between parent and baby. You have some body contact and you’re able to touch and hold the baby while having your hands free. It means when the baby increases its fussing you can respond.”
The Centre for Design Research handled the research for the project by setting up groups with parents that had experience of colic, talking about how they’d managed problems and how they would react to the product. It then laid out concepts based on how to put the baby in the agreed position, developing 25 prototypes in-house with help from the university’s fashion department which were tested on over 100 patients.
Northumbria’s Bruce Watson said: “The funding does make this process much faster, but the project’s uniqueness is the access it provides to a range of skills. If we were working on a project that might need sports science or psychology expertise we could bring a team in. It would be very difficult to find other organisations with that mix of skills.”
Since Nurture’s involvement with the project has finished, Reid has continued to evolve the design with the help of The Product Group in Cramlington, altering the materials and set-up to make it quicker to slip on and more acceptable for larger-scale manufacture.
Reid said: “As I see it, the Nurture programme’s role is to design things which allow you to understand the product and how it works, and then you can go on and produce something to market. We’re at the stage where together we’ve shown there’s something behind this.
“The Nurture programme went through a number of different trial-and-error sketches and made a rough-and-ready prototype of all the ways in which you could get a baby up into the optimal position.”
Nurture is two years into a three-year programme, and while European funding is still in place the imminent removal of One North East will force it to re-think its funding if it is extended.
Watson said: “We’ve been refining it as we go because of feedback on what the industry wants. The programme will finish at the end of November 2011, and it would be nice if we extended it as there’s definitely an appetite for it.
“The major contributor to this programme is 50% from Europe which is still around. The problem is we don’t have the One North East element of funding but we could still offer it in principle with SMEs providing more funding.
“There’s a degree of cynicism in the SME community that says it’s easier just to do it themselves, but businesses are starting to realise they can’t do everything by themselves. The centre has been working with industry for over 20 years so we understand the regional landscape and the pressures businesses face.”
Nurture works to find the solutions
Surgical Wound Irrigator
NURTURE worked with a regional medical device manufacturer to develop a better solution to irrigating wounds in orthopaedic surgery. The current devices allow the surgeon to wash away debris generated from the cutting of bone and tissue to maintain visibility in the area they are working.
The products use devices with motors and batteries, which are disposed of after a single use as they are very difficult to clean to a surgical standard. The client and Nurture developed and prototyped a low-cost disposable unit, which is currently on trial.
NURTURE worked with a software company that provides solutions to people with learning difficulties such as dyslexia.
An online test and tool was developed to help make reading easier by creating optimal on-screen reading conditions. This involved finding the best background colour for screen text, as research has proven that for large numbers of the population reading black text on a white background is actually restrictive to the mechanics of reading. With the help of Nurture the client has successfully launched the test and tool and offers it online on a pay-per-use model.
NURTURE worked with Nano-pourus Solutions on medical applications for its world-leading air purification and drying technology. The technology has the potential to hugely reduce the energy used in removing moisture from compressed air, and can be used in everything from industrial power tools to medical instruments and operating equipment.
Nurture’s work with NPSL has resulted in a number of valuable patents for the client.
NURTURE worked with Sappari to look at the design feasibility of developing the company’s own system for Cryotherapy.
Cryotherapy is a process in which patients spend time in a chamber kept at -120C, and then perform a series of exercises to warm up the body on exiting.
The company’s research indicates this process encourages better blood flow and faster healing of body damage such as broken bones. It also has applications in pain-relief for arthritis sufferers and those experiencing chronic muscular and skeletal pain.