Posted on Wednesday 28 August 2019 by Ulster Business
Medical 3D printing firm axial3D has shone as one of the major success stories to emerge from leading technology hub Catalyst. We speak to founder Daniel Crawford and his team about the journey so far
A spark in the mind of Daniel Crawford as he studied for his masters degree in Glasgow just a few years ago has grown into a business at the sharp end of technology.
axial3D is tasked with turning the complicated and laborious process of converting 2D medical scans into 3D models – and producing them for use by surgeons and medical professionals.
It’s an ever-growing business, spun out of Ulster University, which is expanding its reach across the UK, Ireland and now into the US where it’s targeting a burgeoning fresh marketplace.
The company has been involved with Catalyst since 2015, been directly involved with a host of its programmes, and is participating in the EU INTERREG funded North West Centre for Advanced Manufacturing (NW CAM), managed by the Special European Union Programmes Body (SEUPB).
Catalyst is Northern Ireland’s leading technology hub, home to 174 companies and around 2,700 staff.
Daniel has a strong team around him – growing to 16 staff based in Belfast city centre, including Niall Haslam, chief technology officer, Katie McKinley, head of new business and strategic partnerships and Cathy Coomber as operations manager.
While studying medical visualisation and human anatomy in Glasgow, Daniel was exposed to the raft of imaging available – including CT, MRI and ultrasound, and began examining how the crucial data could be better used.
The biomedical physics undergraduate grew the idea into his thesis – looking at converting 2D data sets and converting them into fully 3D printable files.
“That allows us to turn images into 3D models to allow surgeons or registrars, to understand digital pathologies, before going in to theatre,” he said.
“But we discovered it wasn’t just good for that and surgeons also wanted to get their hands on the 3D models.”
That gave Daniel greater scope for developing the concept. In one early case, a surgeon was able to use one of the 3D prints to identify small fractures in a patient who had suffered a motorcycle crash, that weren’t initially apparent using more traditional methods.
The company was thrust into Catalyst’s Springboard programme in 2015 – a 16 week scheme which allowed a would-be entrepreneur, fresh out of university, access to business training and development, which included working with PathXL’s Stuart Harvey.
From there, it was into the Halo programme – bringing axial3D together with angel investors in order to get the start-up off the ground. It landed £300,000 through Techstart and private investors, which allowed the company to get the ball rolling.
Through Catalyst, Daniel also got the opportunity to visit MIT and the entrepreneurial development programme, Way to Scale, bringing axial3D to Massachusetts and the Boston area – the global heart of the health technology sector.
Niall Haslam is axial3D’s chief technical officer. He said a Belfast and Boston partnership has helped strengthen the links between the cities, bringing firms from Northern Ireland to the US for both networking and scoping out the potential for setting up shop across the Atlantic.
“The Way to Scale program brings entrepreneurs together. It’s a great networking opportunity,” Niall says.
axial3D is now a partner in the EU INTERREG-funded NW CAM, which brings together a network of research institutes, universities and enterprises to carry out research in advanced manufacturing.
It is working with Ulster University on a number of projects, including looking at developing custom designed jigs for hospitals to produce 3D models.
Cathy Coomber has been with axial3D for three years. “What we have done in that time is looking at standardising the processes,” she says. “Biomedical engineers from Ulster University and those across the UK are producing data, manually segmenting thousands of medical images in order to help them develop an algorithm.
“That allows us to massively improve our standardised process and reduce the time involved in producing those files.” That could mean reducing the time down from up to five hours, to as little as an hour.
“When the company started, Daniel was able to get those early users excited in Glasgow, and then setting up in Belfast there were key surgeons which helped set the pace,” Katie McKinley, head of new business and strategic partnerships said.
The company has since been involved with NHS frameworks as a means to help remove as many bottlenecks as possible.
This involves developing and marketing the products to the NHS and HSC in the Republic – helping them to learn about the product, the process and what area of specialism it can be used in.
“In the last 18 months with the development of the algorithms, we are moving in to the US,” Katie said. “We’re seeing a lot of growth in the US.”
And the axial3D team is also growing fast. “We have 16 staff at the moment but are looking to expand in 12 months,” Daniel said.
“That includes new staff in the US to help grow and manage that market as we further expand our software team back home.”
The success of axial3D mirrors the overall success of Catalyst, since its inception 20 years ago. It’s an independent not-for-profit organisation across its four sites – including its largest base at the Titanic Quarter in Belfast, alongside its Londonderry hub, Ballymena, along with the Catalyst Belfast Fintech Hub at Danske Bank in Belfast city centre.