Elaine Warburton OBE, chief executive of QuantuMDx

QuantuMDx chief executive Elaine Warburton OBE discusses the creation of her renowned biotech and what's next for the firm

Elaine Warburton
Elaine Warburton

You might almost say Elaine Warburton was destined to go into healthcare.

Her great-uncle was Lord William Beveridge, architect of the NHS, whose belief in ‘equal access to healthcare and justice for all’ remains a key philosophy for Elaine today. (Fair enough, the tie was through marriage, rather than blood, but it’s certainly a decent start).

Then there’s the fact Elaine was exposed to the fundamentals of genetics while still a young teenager, her mother Penny having taken up an Open University degree in biology.

“All my Christmases came at once when huge boxes, packed full of exciting experiments, tutorials, equipment and plethora of chemical and reagents, were delivered to the house,” she recalled.

“Rather than cook, knit and sew, as was expected of ‘nice girls’ in the 1970s, together we carried out the amazing and fascinating experiments in the kitchen.”

Even the sadder elements of Elaine’s life have helped spur on her passion – most notably her mother’s prolonged battle with breast cancer, which ended on November 19, 1989.

“For that day forward, a fire raged inside me, focused on how I could crack that disease,” she said – and, as chief executive of QuantuMDx, she has as good as chance as anyone of making true on her word.

Established six years ago, the company, based at Newcastle’s International Centre for Life, has grown into one of the most exciting and widely-praised biotechs in the region, if not the country.

And it’s all because of an object not much bigger than an iPad, officially known as the Q-POC, but referred to affectionately by so-called ‘Quantumites’ as Josephine.

Add a cartridge – or Mini Me – and the highly-portable device has the potential to diagnose infectious diseases in a matter of minutes.

It works through reading and sequencing DNA before converting it into binary code using a tiny computer chip, and the potential is there to look at everything from TB to cancer.

The firm’s initial focus, however, is on the eradication of malaria – an illness that currently kills a child every minute.

“Many companies are looking to develop very rapid diagnostics,” Elaine said.

“But we are putting that into a handheld device.

“For such a complex disease, this is unique.”

All the basics are already in place and from June to the end of the year, the firm will be “testing and testing” to produce its alpha prototype.

A beta prototype will follow, with full trials in African nations commencing in March next year.

Shortly after that, it’s hoped, the device can be commercialised and rolled out to healthcare professionals first, then potentially to the general public

“I believe it will make a huge impact, particularly in developing countries, because we can take these diagnostics into rural communities and finally bring equality back to healthcare,” Elaine said.

“Those people with no access to good-quality healthcare and diagnostics will now have them at a price that’s affordable.

“Then, when it comes to first-world countries, particularly with cancer diagnostics, we will be able to look at genetics to see whether a particular drug can be tolerated, making sure patients are given the right course of treatment. We’re moving down the road to personalised medicines.”

Revolutionary indeed – but getting to that point has taken a fair few ups and downs, coincidences, financial woes and spot-on hunches.

In fact, the QuantuMDx story might never even have begun if Elaine, who is originally from Sussex, had managed to get the straight A grades she needed for veterinary college.

Instead, she enrolled at Liverpool University for a joint degree in life sciences and nursing in the early 1980s.

“The UK’s social unrest riots were at their peak and Liverpool was a bomb site,” she said.

“For an innocent country girl like me, it was a rude awakening into life’s rich tapestry, but I did have a ball.

“On top of endless music gigs and hospital-based fun, genetics was starting to take off in a big way.

“I was hooked on genetics. It blew my mind when I combined Bacillus subtilis and Bacillus thermophilus via protoplast fusion and made a new living species for my thesis.”

It was also at Liverpool that Elaine met her husband-to-be, Julian, who would stand by her from then on, funding her “entrepreneurial habit”.

The only real downer, in fact, was the frustration she felt at how long test results would take to come through, the inaccuracies, the sample mix-ups and the seemingly exaggerated claims for so-called miracle drugs that were either largely ineffective or so side-effect-heavy as to be pointless.

As the 80s drew to a close, then, Elaine then noticed a sea change in healthcare as the money men began to take over.

“If I was to change to a world of healthcare, I needed a financial qualification, fast,” she said.

“I joined KPMG as a trainee chartered accountant.”

This led to her moving into the company’s health consultancy practice, marking the beginning of her healthcare management career.

By the mid-1990s, she was called in by the receivers of a failing charitable hospital to help turn it around in preparation for sale.

Having had a taste of helping run a business, however, consultancy began to lose its sparkle.

“I wanted to grow something from scratch and see it mature,” Elaine said.

And so began the first of three start-ups, with Elaine becoming the chief financial officer in a team focused on introducing a successful military model for musculo-skeletal and spinal rehabilitation into mainstream medicine.

The venture did well, but came to an abrupt halt when the hospital which the group worked at was unexpectedly shut.

Elaine went back to consultancy, before being before headhunted in 1999 to join the London Clinic in Harley Street, one of Europe’s most prestigious private hospitals,with which she was appointed business development and marking director.

It was during her time there that she came across Jonathan O’Halloran, an inventor who first came up with the idea of the “impossible diagnostic”.

“His genius brain went into overdrive and soon he had worked out how to build a rapid sample-to-result molecular diagnostic device that could really help bring complex DNA analysis to the population.

“With my nursing/healthcare experience, I worked on the end-user functionality and the look and the feel of the device.” QuantuMDx was finally incorporated in March 2008, with Jonathan setting up a biotech lab in a garage, using equipment bought on eBay.

Eventually, funding started to flow, one of the biggest grants coming from South Africa’s Science and Technology Agency, which provided £3m, with a further £2m of follow-on funding.

QuantuMDx went on to set up a business in South Africa. Its timethere, however, was cut short through issues connected with the country’s politics.

The firm also hit problems with its chemistry, ultimately solved by Dr Sam Whitehouse, who joined the team after something close to an epiphany on Elaine’s behalf.

“I knew in an instant he would be working with me and would be an important part of my life,” she said. “I was left stunned.”

Moving operations to Newcastle in 2011, the business since benefited from the city’s wealth of R&D facilities, universities, graduates, postgraduates and the genomic hub at the International Centre for Life.

Funding, of course, has continued to be an issue - Elaine bemoans what she calls the shameful lack of support from the banks,

However, buying off NorthGene – one of the first commercial paternity-testing companies starting up in the 90s – provided QuantuMDx with a cash cow and to bring get to Q-POC to trial stage this year, the biotech turned to crowdfunding.

It wasn’t an overwhelming success as far as cold, hard figures were concerned – the company raised £18,000 out of a required £50,000 – but the move generated huge volumes of publicity, attracting numerous messages of support, including some from extremely famous individuals.

It’s undoubtedly an exciting time for the company – or the family, as Elaine, who was this year awarded an OBE for services to innovation in healthcare, sees it.

“What motivates us is that we believe QuantuMDx has got this right,” she said.

The Questionnaire

What car do you drive?
A rather ancient Mercedes estate that the kids, the dog, horse and I can’t wreck any further

What’s your favourite restaurant?
Waterside Inn (Roux Brothers) on the Thames near Windsor, where my husband proposed to me and where I recently enjoyed a wonderful family lunch post Investiture at Windsor castle with The Queen

Who or what makes you laugh?
Everyone! I find humour in all of life

What’s your favourite book?
I simply have no time for reading fiction, only non-fiction, but I watch ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ time and again when commuting back from Toon.

What was the last album you bought?
I’m an iTunes cherry-picker rather than an album buyer. My last download was Muse’s Starlight. Robbie, my youngest, shares my iTunes account so my library is chock full of Eminem and latest singles some of which are quite good, but don’t ask me their names!

What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?
Having the freedom to take innovation to the world, but on my terms

If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say?
B*gger off - I’m busy!

What’s your greatest fear?
Losing my family

What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
“Fly by the seat of your pants, sweetie” (my mother’s last words to me on her deathbed)

And the worst?
“Never make friends in business” (turns out some of my best friends are people I work with)

What’s your poison?
Champagne if I can get away with it, G&T if I can’t

What newspapers do you read?
All of them on my newsfeed but the Daily Mail showbiz section is my guilty pleasure. Celebs behaving badly –awesome! Maybe a little part of me wishes I could be as self-indulgent as them?

How do you keep fit?
Horse riding, dog walking and the Great North Run.

What’s your most irritating habit?
I’ve been told my control freakery is pretty annoying but I just call it good planning!

How much was your first pay packet?
£183.33 on 30 Sept 1985 as a student nurse at Liverpool University.

What’s your biggest extravagance?
My kids

What historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire?
It has to be The Queen – what an amazing woman with an amazing life!

How would you like to be remembered?
“Can’t remember her name but you know... that lovely girl with the big smile who helped change the face of medicine”

Which four people would you most like to dine with?
Besides family and friends – The Queen (for her life and experiences), Chris Martin from Coldplay (hot dinner date!), Dalai Llama (for spiritual enlightenment), Tony Blair (to find out the real truth)

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer