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Case study: CMD

Jenna Bowen of Cotton Mouton Diagnostics explains how a “multidisciplinary” approach has helped it on its five-year journey to commercialisation.

About your organisation 

Cotton Mouton Diagnostics (CMD) is a Cardiff-based diagnostics company that has developed a novel point-of-need analytical platform based on a proprietary magneto-optical (MO) sensing system to enable the rapid and sensitive detection of markers across a range of applications.

What are the physics-based technologies that you are developing in your business?

CMD takes its name from the Cotton-Mouton effect, which is the physical phenomenon that underpins the company’s sensing platform.

CMD’s technology is based around an innovative and proprietary MO sensing system that exploits changes in the rotational behaviour of magnetic reporters that occur either as a natural marker of disease or as artificially introduced components of an MO assay.

A spin-out of Exeter and Cardiff universities, the potential of the technology as a diagnostic platform was first demonstrated by two of the co-founders. At the University of Exeter, Professor Dave Newman and Dr Raphaël Matelon developed an MO system to diagnose malaria out in the field.

In this case, the magnetic reporters are part of the disease process itself as the malaria parasite produces magnetic rod-shaped crystals when in our bloodstream, which can be detected magneto-optically.

My colleague, Dr Chris Allender, from Cardiff University, and I started working with the group at Exeter to take what had been done with malaria and make it more generic, making our own versions of those little rods to then interrogate other samples.

What was your innovation journey like?

When we started working with Exeter, I’d been working in biosensors for some time. A lot of sensing platforms are great in a lab setting, where everything is nice and controlled, and you have clean samples to work with, but once you get them out into the real world, a lot of sensing technologies fall down because they aren’t robust enough.

This technology had been shown to work well during field testing in Africa and Asia, detecting malaria from whole-blood samples. Our innovation journey involved taking the ‘malaria’ system, harnessing all of the positives, and then making it more widely applicable so that we could use it to detect other illnesses that don’t come with an inherently magnetic reporter as malaria does.

One challenge of having a novel technology is getting end users, potential funders, and regulatory agencies familiar with the system. Having commercial prototype systems that can demonstrate real-time performance data helps to overcome this.

When you’re developing a new technology in a commercial setting, there’s a period of time where you’re not making any revenue, so you require external investment to support those endeavours. We’ve used a mixture of grant support and private investor support to get us to where we are today.

Funding from the then Technology Strategy Board (now Innovate UK) supported us in starting CMD. We’re currently in receipt of Innovate UK’s innovation continuity loan, which, alongside private investment, will allow us to take our first product to market.

A lot of our background work was done through relatively small pots of academic proof-of-concept funding, before spinning out the company. As the innovation journey progresses and you develop commercial prototypes, those costs increase.

It’s difficult when you’re not generating a revenue stream to be able to support those things without that external grant support or external investor support for the company.

Now we’re in a position where we will be commercialising our first instruments within the first quarter of next year.

What is your approach to achieving physics-based innovation?

We embrace the concept of ‘open innovation’ at CMD, bringing together people from different backgrounds and sectors to collaboratively solve real-world problems.

CMD is a multidisciplinary team by nature. We have physicists and engineers, but also, nanoparticle scientists and bioassay developers. Having that multidisciplinary team is really important, but also being a spin-out, we’re used to working with others, particularly with academics, to bring in new knowledge and expertise.

How have you gained the skills and knowledge to drive out innovation?

Over the last 12 months, we’ve been working with people that are more expert in the design of instrumentation for large-scale manufacturing and scale-up, as well as consultants with regulatory and quality management backgrounds. Bringing such external expertise into our journey has helped us push our innovation forward into a commercial pathway.

What has the result of your journey been?

CMD is just over five years old, but there was a considerable amount of work that went on academically before that. Our first commercial system will launch in the early part of next year (2022). The CMD αBET® system allows for the rapid and sensitive detection of endotoxin, a toxic molecule found on certain types of bacteria.

Although endotoxin is all around us, it’s really important that it doesn’t enter our bloodstream. This can happen when somebody becomes really poorly but can also happen if we use injectable medicines that are contaminated with endotoxin.

It’s therefore a regulatory requirement that any medicine intended for administration via injection is screened for endotoxin and that’s where the CMD αBET® system comes in.

Existing tests are reagent and sample-hungry, as well as costly, time-consuming, and labour-intensive to perform. Our system has been designed with the end user in mind, demonstrating world-leading performance in terms of sensitivity and time-to-result whilst relying on significantly reduced reagent/sample volumes.

We’re excited about getting the system out there and for it to be used in the real world, to address problems that exist within the pharmaceutical industry.

What tips would you give to businesses developing commercial services underpinned by physics and requiring innovation?

Build a strong team around your innovation, including people with expertise both within and outside of physics to identify application areas. Something that we discovered early on is that you need to be able to sell your idea and your technology to funding agencies and investors, so it’s really important to find a simple way to explain what the technology does.

Focus on the benefits to end users as opposed to getting too bogged down with the underpinning principles. While the underpinning science is really important to you as a team and to delivering the product, often people that are funding you are more concerned with the impact your product will have in the market.

Innovative research does not equal innovation. True innovation is only realised once it’s out there and being applied to real-world problems.

  • These case studies were commissioned by the IOP from CBI Economics