Posted on Monday 25 March 2019 by Ulster Business
Northern Ireland Professor Frank Pantridge created a medical device which has gone on to save countless lives. John Mulgrew looks at the next generation of life-saving tech entrepreneurs
When footballer Fabrice Muamba collapsed suddenly while his Bolton side were away to Spurs at White Harte Lane – seven years ago this month – it was a Belfast-made Heartsine defibrillator which helped save his life.
In fact, it was a Northern Ireland man, cardiologist Professor Frank Pantridge, who invented the portable defibrillator in the first place. Following his recovery, Fabrice paid tribute to the late professor, adding “without his invention of the portable defibrillator I would not be here today”.
And that entrepreneurship, when it comes to producing technology which can help save a life, seems to have followed on from his own lineage to wider, modern tech development here.
That development now ranges from sea survival, to research, mobile phone apps, street defibrillators and life-saving bike ‘smart’ bike lights.
Heartsine is one of them. Founded in 1998 by John Anderson with a group of investors, it led to the development of portable cardiac defibrillators.
In the 1960s, Professor Anderson was approached to start the biomedical engineering group at the Royal Victoria Hospital and headed the effort to produce the world’s first mobile defibrillator to bring the expertise of the hospital to the patient to improve outcomes.
The company’s products include a range of semi-automatic and fully-automatic ‘automated external defibrillators’ – its flagship product the only one of its kind to provide verbal, visual and audio feedback to a rescuer on the force and rate of compressions.
The success of the firm led to it being acquired by US firm Physio-Control in 2015.
Elsewhere, also helping ensure lives are being saved, marine and defence equipment firm Survitec – based in Dunmurry, just outside Belfast.
It started out in Dunmurry in 1952 as RFD Ltd and has grown into a major supplier of marine equipment, with turnover of around £450m and operations around the world.
Its clients include global air forces and navies, major airlines and ferry companies.
The firm’s finance headquarters remain in Dunmurry, where it employs around 300 people, while manufacturing is carried out both in Dunmurry and in England. It also has around 80 service centres in 30 countries around the world.
The availability of defibrillators is one of the key elements in their ability to save life. And such is the development of the technology, that a series of ‘smart’ hubs have been installed throughout Belfast – and each includes a defibrillator.
Tech entrepreneur Patrick Fisher, founder of Urban Innovation Company, is behind the £3m scheme, which is a ‘smart’ telecoms hub.
Belfast City Council has already granted permission for 25 of the hubs, with that growing to a network of 30.
They integrate so-called ‘public access defibrillators’. Therefore, if someone experiences an ‘out-of-hospital sudden cardiac arrest’ nearby, the likelihood of survival greatly increases from 9% to 59%, according to those behind the scheme. The defibrillators can also be used without training.
“In the age of the ‘smart city’, street furniture must do more to earn its place on the High Street,” Patrick Fisher said.
“At no cost to the public or taxpayer, the Pulse Smart Hub is the smartest of smart furniture. A network of beautifully designed and engineered hubs that provide next generation connectivity, share information, track the environment, and ultimately, save lives.”
Another firm which perhaps doesn’t get the kudos for helping save lives, is Co Down bike light business See.Sense.
A crowd-funded business based in Newtownards, husband and wife team Philip and Irene McAleese began their company as keen cyclists.
The product line has grown in those years, but essentially, the equipment reacts to the road surface and surroundings, with the lights flashing quicker when the cyclist is in a more hazardous situation, such as on uneven terrain or negotiating a junction.
This makes it easier for motorists to see cyclists, while at the same time conserving the battery power.
Irene has said the idea came about while they were living in Singapore, and found cycling even more dangerous than in London.
Since then, the firm has gone on to win a number of awards. That includes shining a light at the Aer Lingus TakeOff Foundation Business Awards in 2018. See.Sense won the Innovation of the Year Award for its products.
But there’s also a new crop of developers using technology to help make lives easier, and to ensure they are saved.
Becca Hume is the founder of TapSOS – a smartphone app which allows users to communicate with the emergency services in a non-verbal manner. It’s a pictorial system, allowing people to raise an alert rapidly without speaking, operating in the same way as ringing 999, connecting users with the four services: ambulance, police, coastguard and fire service.
“Our product is closest to the text service, simply because they are both non-verbal. However there are no others in the UK offering our type of service,” she says.
It’s yet another example of the ingenuity of Northern Ireland entrepreneurs, each considering the lives of others when putting their thinking caps on.