Entrepreneur Interview: with Richard Kirk, PolyPhotonix

Posted on the 6 April 2016

Entrepreneur Interview: with Richard Kirk, PolyPhotonix

Not what you’d expect from someone in business, Richard started his career as an artist, which he supposes gives him a slightly different perspective to a lot of people in industry.

Tell me a little more about your background?

After I left college I travelled to Australia, then Paris where I lived for seven years. I had a fairly successful career with exhibitions around the world. It was a great lifestyle and really enjoyable, but eventually I needed to do something else. When I first start working as an artist with the confidence of youth I thought I would make a difference, maybe even advance the cause of modernism. Experience and maturity changes you. The need to sell your work as well as create means it’s difficult to be genuinely creative, especially when you know that the work in your last show sold. I felt that I had painted myself into a cul-de-sac.

About 15 years ago a chance meeting in a pub led to a complete change of direction. One afternoon I was having a drink in Soho, as artists do, and ended up in a conversation with a man who had a small piece of plastic film coated in electroluminescent material, he connected a battery to it and it lit up. I immediately saw the potential, I made a number of phone calls, did some due diligence, quickly raised some funding and a partner, and in a few weeks I’d founded my first company.

I think my relative inexperience in business at this point gave me confidence. I knew that in order to take on the big players working in this area I had to improve the technology, so I promptly hired some ink chemists who were able to improve the manufacturing process almost immediately. I also took a different view to the established companies, while they focussed on the science, research and development, I focussed on the application and the customer. We were able to leapfrog the bigger players and landed customers like JC Decaux and Clear Channel, the multinational outdoor advertisers, and within a few years we were trading in 22 countries.

Meanwhile, given my artistic background, I was funding artists and designers to create things, objects, installations… using my technology. One day I was invited to meet the Mercedes design team at their Advanced Design Centre on Lake Como in Italy. In the meetings I noticed that the images in the mood boards the designers were using for their inspiration were of the artists work that I had funded. 

Its obvious in hindsight but I then realised that the teams that create the look and feel of the future automotive industry generally went to art school. Inspired by this insight I started to methodically sponsor artists to use our materials. I gave them free reign to use our materials and see what happened, it gave my company enormous exposure, better than any marketing plan. This in turn led to work with most of the car manufacturers, we had a big input into the  Jaguar XF interior, and we also created 25m long electroluminescent wall ‘All the Time in the World’ in the BA First Class Lounge at Heathrow airport.

This first business taught me a lot, and we had a lot of success, but it was in many ways a lifestyle business. It made plenty of money, but it couldn’t be scaled up. The most important lesson I took away from it was the need for a cooperative and powerful board, made up of people who are up to the task at hand and added real value.

What was your first business premises?

PolyPhotonix’s first premises was in the building of our partners, the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI), on the NETPark site at Sedgefield. I live in London but over the last few years I have gone native and I now spend the majority of my time in the North East. I base myself  in North Yorkshire, which I love, I’m into climbing so there’s nowhere better. I started the business at the start of the financial crisis, which meant it needed a partner, that’s where CPI came in, they were setting up a national centre for printed electronics and it looked like a perfect fit. Being based in their building meant we could use their R&D equipment. We’ve since outgrown the space we had there and moved next door into our own building.

How has the business grown since you first started it?

We currently employ 22 people and expect to take on another 10 this year. Over the last 6 years we have also supported and funded 36 university research projects. This has vastly increased our knowledge base. We are entering revenue now, and are gearing up for export sales later this year, profitability will come in a couple of years. 

Tell me a little more about the market you’re operating in.

We’re developing a treatment for a particular type of blindness. It’s a game changing treatment; the market will change because of us. We’ve had to fund many years of clinical trials, which has been a challenge from an investment view. We’ve raised over £14 million in research grants, including a substantial amounts from the NHS. The Government are actually using PolyPhotonix as a case study as a successful example of turning research into a real business with applications. In the UK much of the funding available for early stage companies isn’t geared towards funding the innovation cycle. Typically Venture Capitalists fund on a 3 to 5 year cycle, where the innovation cycle is usually 10 to 15 years.  

Working in the Med Tech field market entry for products like ours is really difficult in the UK. There is almost no private sales market because of the presence of the NHS and the NHS takes on average nine years to adopt new med tech innovations after its efficacy is proven. This is challenging particularly as some of our foreign customers only take a few months to go through the same approval process. This is one of the reasons why the UK fails to create big companies. History tells us that companies will develop and fund markets where they generate revenue and this pushes us overseas. One thing the NHS does really well is statistics and reports, and they’ve estimated that the Noctura 400 treatment could save a billion pounds a year on adoption. 

So what is your USP?

We have developed a treatment for diabetic retinopathy, meaning sufferers won’t go blind. This is an improvement on other treatments which delay the onset of blindness. To put this in perspective, there are more than 280,000 new cases of diabetes diagnosed each year, and diabetic retinopathy affects two thirds of people with Type 2 diabetes and nine out of ten with Type 1.

Currently the diseases is treated with laser photocoagulation, which in turn permanently damages vision and can only be used a limited number of times, or a series of painful and expensive injections. The injections cost the NHS £6,500 per eye per year, our Noctura 400 sleep mask, which can be used at home, costs roughly one twentieth of this.

How do you keep everyone at PolyPhotonix motivated?

We have an option pool, which is something we started soon after the company was formed. Some of our staff have accrued options which will have significant value if all goes well. We have a very flat organisational structure, and empower people to do their jobs their way, both of which keep people motivated. 

Two thirds of our employees have doctorates in science, so working on cutting edge research with the university researchers we fund is a big positive for them. They get patents and publish papers, so they get the best of both business and academic life.

We all get a huge buzz from customer feedback too. We have over 350,000 hours of patient use and often receive letters from all over the world thanking us. It’s nice to know you’re making a difference.

How does your motivation now compare with that when you started the firm?

I used to worry about where my next £10,000 would come from, now it’s more likely that I’m looking for the next £250,000. I’m still excited about what we’re doing and that the company is lean and mean. It’s a huge thing to see your product go from an academic paper to seeing it in use, perhaps even a bigger buzz than I got working as an artist.

Your business structure, how did it come about?

As I said, we’re lean and mean. The university research projects we sponsor give us access to knowledge and capacity beyond our size, we use project managers to look after all of these.

We have a small but powerful board, with knowledge and connections in all the business areas we need.  This structure is a result of two things, my experience in my first company and the fact that whilst we were setting up we couldn’t afford to have a large number of highly paid executives.

Care to tell me a little about your future plans?

Our revenue is building month on month and we’re in the process of raising further investment. We need this capital to start scaling up the company to meet demand. The World Health Organisation estimate there is half a billion people in the world with diabetes and 104 million with diabetic retinopathy. Closer to home, we’re excited to see our masks being made available through Lloyds Pharmacies this year.