A diagnostic in the hand is worth …

Dr Sam Whitehouse was firmly ensconced in business development, managing a large portfolio of academic-industry biotech collaborations and UK government grant portfolios, when a personal crisis forced him to change his priorities and rethink his career. The move led to his involvement in creating the world’s first handheld diagnostic.

Sam has been Chief Operating Officer of QuantuMDx Group Ltd for the last three years, based at their headquarters at the International Centre for Life in Newcastle Upon Tyne. But his journey to this convergence point of personal and professional goals started with him as a “London lad”. Moving to Sheffield to take a degree in Chemistry, after a stint working for Merck Sharpe & Dohme at its Terlings Park Neuroscience Centre, he came to feel that drug development, although interesting, was repetitive on a daily basis. So, following advice from mentors and friends, it was back to Sheffield to take a PhD in Chemistry and Molecular Biology with Profs Chris Hunter FRS and Neil Hunter FRS, synthesising molecular probes for protein attachment.

“It was good experience to learn more biological sciences, and it proved to me that the application of science was a lot more interesting than the fundamentals. Rather than Post-doc, I wrote up my PhD (with a little teaching to keep the money coming in) and moved into a polymer division of Lombard Medical Ltd as a Research Scientist.”

Initially the work involved a lot of surface science, and Sam worked on a project attaching stem cells onto cardiovascular stents to see if they helped the problem of restenosis in the arteries; and another that addressed lubricious coatings for medical applications. This was sold to Bayer Materials Science and, at the time of his daughter, Sian’s, birth, most of his work had shifted to business focused, rather than the bench.

It was a natural move, then, into a business development role for the N8 consortium of universities in the North of England – the Universities of Sheffield, Leeds, York, Durham, Newcastle, Lancaster, Manchester and Liverpool – “they still roll off the tongue like a mantra. I worked with over 130 academic groups, linking them with businesses across Europe. The focus of the work involved applying basic science to industrial problems, and funding projects to start new relationships. The technologies ranged from OLED/Photovoltaics to bone constructs, printing technologies and medical devices, to nanotechnology applications. Many of these projects are still successful today, producing new products onto the market three years later.”

When Sam’s son, James, was born in 2010, life changed dramatically, however. Two months premature, he had breathing difficulties and no immune system. It was an immensely stressful period that affected the family deeply. Four years on and James is a healthy child, but his illness made Sam repeatedly question the lack of diagnostics on the market to ascertain a diagnosis of his son.

Soon after, in a serendipitous turn of events, Sam met with Elaine Warburton, OBE, and Jonathan O’Halloran, CEO and CSO of QuantuMDx, to help them solve a number of chemistry issues they were struggling with. QuantuMDx then linked with Sheffield University in a joint project under the auspices of N8, and Sam became more involved – and more excited about the company. He felt a synergy with its vision and knew he had a lot to offer in the development of its technology on a technical level, as well as the ability to obtain funding at the most essential time in the life of an SME. So, when QuantuMDx secured NHS funding for a sequencing project, Sam didn’t hesitate in joining them.

The company moved from its South African base to Newcastle upon Tyne at the end of a project on HIV and TB co-infection, and focused on the development of a fully integrated handheld diagnostic – and began to expand rapidly. “We moved to Newcastle a year later, and we’ve continued to be successful in bringing our science to life. We have so many wonderfully gifted people in the North East, with so much talent, I struggle to see why you’d want to move elsewhere.”

Sam believes that QuantuMDx is set to revolutionise the industry with its diagnostic device that can be deployed cost-effectively across the globe. But, after the trauma with his son, for him the goal to bring more and more technologies to the everyday person is personal. “And the only way to do this is to enable others around you. If this involves building physical hubs of grow-on space for young companies (a problem in all our Northern cities), or partnering with the best in the world with new technologies, or employing the latest manufacturing techniques, then bring it on – I’m a geek with a mission!“

 

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