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Case study: TRUEinvivo

Founder Shakardokht Jafari details her innovation journey from a lack of support and budget at the idea stage to commercialisation.

About your organisation

TRUEinvivo is a radiation-measurement company focused on reducing patient harm in radiotherapy and making treatment more effective.

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

During my PhD, I realised that 10% to 25% of cancer patients fail their treatment or develop further complications. As a physicist, I questioned what I could do about it and looked at the accuracy of radiation delivery during the treatment.

Optical fibres had great results in the lab, but when I took them into the clinical environment, they weren’t practical because they’re so frail and tiny. Instead, I looked at other materials that have similar physical properties to optical fibres that I could use as radiation detectors. Suddenly, I had an ‘aha’ moment and I visited a craft shop, bought a pack of jewellery beads, tested them, and I couldn’t believe the results.

Glass jewellery beads are amorphous silicon and when they receive radiation, the radiation ionises the material, and free electrons are created. Those free electrons get trapped in the energy levels in the structure of the material and after, irradiated beads can be analysed via different methods including electron paramagnetic resonance spectroscopy, and optically simulated luminescence or thermoluminescent (TL) reading systems. We use the TL system as it is lower cost, more convenient and accessible.

TRUEinvivo makes DOSEmapper™ (1D, 2D and 3D) medical devices which are unique high-performance array detectors (TLD) consisting of 100+ tiny (1mm) micro-silica glass beads packed on a thread for use in a standard catheter and inserted into a natural orifice next to the tumour.

The inserted beads absorb the received radiation as stored energy over 100 points across and around the tumour. This is applicable to 70% of cancer occurrences.

What was your innovation journey like?

To begin with I didn’t have a budget for my innovation. When you have a purely new, unplanned idea, there is no budget for that. My supervisor had been quite concerned about how I was going to carry out the experiments I needed.

Another challenge was convincing my supervisors about this idea. The initial reaction from everyone was negative, but then when I obtained results and showed them to a clinical supervisor, she encouraged me.

But, even if the whole world stands in my way, I’ll still carry on doing what I believe is right. I was sure that my idea was going to work because my initial results were quite promising and that motivated me and kept me going, even though I didn’t have the initial support that I needed.

All I had was access to a radiation lab. I needed a lot of arrangement for my experiments, but when people saw the preliminary results, they were so excited and voluntarily conducted the experiments for me; centres including the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), the University of Surrey’s Ion Beam Centre and 20 NHS hospitals across UK helped out. This taught me that when you have an idea that works and equally excites other people, you attract collaborators, and you don’t have to have money.

“With the skills I obtained going through this journey, I feel that I am capable of translating more research outcomes into reality.”

– Shakardokht Jafari, CTO and founder, TRUEinvivo

What is your approach to achieving physics-based innovation?

My strategy has always been to move step-by-step and be a bit conservative in terms of keeping the connections and people around you. For example, when my supervisor disagreed with my idea, I didn’t give up, but at the same time, I didn’t quite confront him.

I tried to convince him with evidence. I have seen some students completely break the relationship with their supervisor if they don’t like the idea and move onto another, but that was not my case. I always try to keep my connections, and the people who are supporting me, around me.

TRUEinvivo spiral glass beads

Spiral glass beads

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

I had my master’s degree in medical physics, so I knew terms of theory and concept, and all the lab experiments we did during lessons helped me to have practical skills. I was also brave enough to approach other professors and academics in the university.

When I had questions, or when I was stuck in understanding the results of some of the experiments. I didn’t just limit myself to the opinion of my own supervisors, I actively approached everyone who could help me to understand better. When they saw my innovative idea, and the results, they were equally excited and supportive.

What has the result of your journey been?

The first series of results presented in 2013 at the International Conference on Dosimetry and Applications (ICDA-1) in Prague. Then, in 2014, my first paper came out, and I managed to gather the required results for the entirety of my PhD within a year. I started writing up my thesis by the end of 2014, and while I was over the moon with the detector I found, as it was still in a clinical setting, I didn’t think it would work.

I was reading 200 to 300 samples in a day, and that’s only for one patient for a high-resolution measurement that I was dreaming of. I thought I should make a fully automated reader. I separated the reading steps that were taking place in a conventional available reader and theoretically designed a fully automated reader that could read, instead of one day, in 30 minutes.

I also attended the University of Surrey’s researcher to innovator and innovation to commercialisation courses, and began learning about the business aspects of it, and I could see the transition of my own mindset from being a pure researcher into seeing the reality of the commercial world, and how I can succeed in commercialisation.

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

There are three key challenges that the industry faces that you need to consider right from the beginning. One is to have the right team, who are like-minded and who have faith in you and are not there just for the sake of doing a job and getting paid.

Secondly, if you are subcontracting a manufacturer for making the prototype, it is very important that those people understand the physics behind that technology, because it is so complex. If someone doesn’t understand the knowledge behind it during the design, mistakes will be made during the manufacturing process that affect the physical performance of the equipment, serious delays happen, and prototype production costs hugely increase.

Thirdly, I’ve been struggling a lot with investment, and I think this is a challenge we have in the UK, because when I visited the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2017 and presented my technology to investors, I received two offers of $1m in investment in two weeks.

A lot needs to be done in terms of encouraging investors to invest in the development of physics and medical-based technologies, because it takes so long. Investors want immediate reward, but medical technologies and physics-based technologies are very slow to get to the final stage of commercialisation. Right from the beginning, have a plan B and plan C for every financial route you’re taking.

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