Dr Wendy Powell, CCI’s Reader in Virtual Reality, awarded for excellence at the £3.2 million ICURe programme

The UK’s ICURe programme offers university researchers with commercially-promising ideas up to £50k to ‘get out of the lab’ and validate their ideas in the marketplace.

It is a collaboration of the SETsquared Partnership; the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and Innovate UK (formerly the Technology Strategy Board). Throughout 2014-16, the ICURe pilot focused on research projects from invited universities and funded teams to determine whether there is a market for products or services that utilise their research, and then, where there is evidence of market demand, licence or spin-out the research into a company.

Minister for Universities and Science, Greg Clark MP, said, “It will provide skills, support and mentoring to help the UK’s best researchers turn their ideas into commercial success. This strengthens the UK’s position as the best place for science and technology research, and drives forward our economic growth”.

Originally, the programme only included the five SETsquared universities (Bath, Bristol, Exeter, Southampton and Surrey) but the strength of Dr Wendy Powell’s initial research ensured that Portsmouth was invited to participate, as the first non-SETsquared team. Not only did the team hold their own in the programme as the only ‘outsiders’, but they also walked away with the ICURe award for excellence, beating off strong competition from researchers across the SETsquared region. The project, ‘Application of Emerging Technologies for Enhanced Mirror Therapy’, focuses on developing a novel application for treatment of phantom limb pain in amputees. This type of pain is often treated by a method called Mirror Therapy, where patients can visualise the missing limb using a reflection of an intact limb. However, there are limitations with this treatment; as Dr Powell explains, “If an amputee has both arms missing, then you can’t mirror the good arm because it simply isn’t there. It also doesn’t work so well with legs as it’s difficult to position the mirror effectively with lower limbs. So, it all started with a bit of research looking at ways we can get rid of these problems”.

Following this and building on existing work, Dr Powell and her team started to visualise the missing limb, by taking muscle signals from the remaining stump to control a visualisation in virtual reality. A successful prototype was built by putting sensors on the muscles, just below the elbow, to control a virtual hand. The ICURe programme offered Dr Powell the chance to explore what the users of this technology wanted, how they would use it and ultimately, if that had any prospect for commercialisation. Recalling her experiences, Dr Powell said, “After having more than one hundred meetings with industry experts, patients and therapists, it became apparent that people did want the technology, as well as having a lot of good ideas about what it should look like”.

However, “when it came to evaluating what the market was worth, it was relatively small, which makes it less attractive to big investors.” Through the dialogue with stakeholders, Powell and her team identified another area in which this technology could be applied. Roughly 30% of patients that are fitted with an artificial limb reject it in some way due to the difficulty in controlling it. In order to stop this happening, the research shifted to getting the patients to visualise their artificial arm beforehand and allow them to practice the controls, smoothing out the transition process. This also highlighted a dramatic difference in market value, as Powell explains, “These limbs, which are renewed every three to five years, can cost $35,000 per limb, and about half this cost is the expense of fitting and training. If our software works then you could potentially save $10,000-$15,000 per patient and then suddenly you’re talking about big savings and it turns into a commercial market”.

These findings informed Powell’s research and at the end of the ICURE programme, she came back with two main conclusions; the developing technology was important for the treatment of phantom limb pain but in terms of commerciality, the training and visualisation has the most market potential. However, this process was about more than just identifying the commercial prospects for her project.

Through this research and ICURe funding of £50k, Powell has traveled extensively and “met some really interesting characters along the way”. Getting ‘out of the lab’ and meeting the very people that her research is affecting was a humbling experience for Powell and will remain at the centre and purpose of the project. Dr Powell was supported by Grant Day who was then part of the RIS (Research and Innovation Services) team at the University of Portsmouth and acted as a Technology Transfer Officer and business mentor. Day credits her “relentless enthusiasm and dedication, which impressed everybody involved in the programme and it was no surprise that she won the ICURe award for excellence”.

The team also included Joan Farrer, Professor of Design and Innovation in the Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries, who acted as an advisor and has said of Dr Powell, “She is a powerhouse who deserved the recognition of excellent achievement at the ICURe Innovation programme and we are delighted for her”.

So what is next for this project? Throughout the summer months, Powell plans to get a number of students involved, “I’m currently speaking to two engineering students who will be coming over from France for the summer to work on the sensor development”. This will be followed by, “getting some of our Games Technology graduates to revisit our prototype and to take it to the next stage using feedback from the customer research”. This project has retained its integrity whilst adjusting to its commercial viability.

Within the Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries, we are excited about the continued growth of our research culture, with projects such as this paving the way.

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