Much more to life than science alone
Dr Phil Marsden is Director and Consulting Physicist at Unitive Design and Analysis. As part of our regular updates from our community, Dr Marsden took the time to speak to us about his current projects and his ongoing activities with MediSens.
You’re joining forces with us to help run medical imaging meetings – why?
In my 15 years as a scientist and an engineer I have had my greatest satisfaction in solving technical problems and then my greatest frustration in finding out that these problems were not the problems that needed to be solved in the first place. More than once I have visited an end user after a product has been delivered to find out that it is not what they wanted. The challenge lies on both sides. The customer doesn’t know what is possible and the technologist doesn’t know the true underlying need. Sometimes we need to do a lot of digging and iterating before these two can align. When I found out that this is exactly what Robert Stead has set up this conference to address, I was thrilled to join in and help out.
What motivated you to set up your own business?
The cop out answer is ‘see above’, but it goes deeper than that: I was frustrated in small and large organisations alike, where I felt too much emphasis was put on the technology and not enough on finding out what the real needs of the application are. I started Unitive Design and Analysis out of frustration, but quickly turned this counter-motivation into a motivation towards ‘engineering in an application-focused environment’. This is what we are about. This is our company ethos – we want to solve the right problem, in the right environment, at the right time.
Were you right?
I guess the proof of the pudding will be in our growth. We are still a young company now: three years old with just over 2 full-time equivalent staff, soon to be 3 and hopefully more by the end of the year. Regardless of what people tell you, starting your own business is more terrifying than you thought, more stressful, more emotionally draining and harder work. Fortunately, Graduate School prepared me for a lot of that. However, there has never been a day when I woke up and said, “I wish I didn’t do this”. Every day has new challenges, but we know which direction we are headed and we are making steady progress. So, yes, I was absolutely right!
Machine vision is everywhere now, from MedTech to BioTech, Automotive to AgriTech – Do you have a preference, if so, why?
We don’t have a specific preference per se. My team come from the MedTech and the motion picture post production industries (which reflects my path through imaging) and we understand highly regulated environments and non-regulated, extremely high expectation environments. This pretty much covers the spectrum of industries that you have mentioned. Fundamentally the technology is the same and the physics too. The physics nerds (like me) will know that the photon only has three independent degrees of freedom – spin, energy and wavevector – which in imaging we call polarisation, wavelength and direction (the über-nerds will know that time and position are linked to energy and wavevector through quantum mechanics and are therefore not independent). The point is that we simply apply this basic physics over and over again to solve different problems in different environments. The bigger challenge is how these industries work. MedTech tends to be made up of very big players which are not-necessarily easy to interact with due to internal red tape and because they have their own imaging experts. We tend to work with smaller companies who are earlier on in the supply chain. At the other end, AgriTech has a number of small companies trying to solve specific problems and BioTech has a whole new set of problems appearing with the push from personalised medicine and the ability to mine big data. All sectors present their challenges and it makes rich and interesting learning how to navigate them.
Your work is largely split across technical and regulatory matters. What’s the most common problem you see in each?
Well, I have to be a little careful here to not sound too critical of our clients, but I think that there are some common themes. From the technical perspective we often see companies taking too large a technical risk on emerging technology. One thing that we are good at is quickly evaluating whether a technology is commercially viable. Unfortunately, as much as the major suppliers will tell you that they are just there to help you solve your technical problems, they are in fact trying to sell their products. The other common technical issue is a lack of off-the-shelf test platforms for new sensing and imaging devices. We are good at finding the right people to get things going quickly rather than spending 6 months on prototyping for feasibility only to then have to abandon the device and go in a different route.
On the regulatory side there are again two themes. Small companies trying to enter the market are not typically focused on regulatory compliance. They need to get a product out fast, especially if investors are involved. We commonly go in and take their design files and knock them into something that can be tested against a standard. Often, an independent critical technical risk evaluation of the design can give a company all it needs to move forward to prepare the Technical File to satisfy the regulator. The other scenario is in medium sized companies which are growing and producing new designs, but have taken focus off existing products which have been updated / patched / had new component suppliers. We often perform this back fill role when there are resource constraints.
Who do you admire, and why?
Well, I am a physicist through and through, my generation idolises Richard Feynman, and I am no exception. His critical thinking, his tenacity in never giving up on a problem until it is solved and his bongo playing (I also play the bongo) are a big inspiration. If I get disheartened I will gladly go back and read ‘Surely you are joking Mr Feynman” and read about his view of nature, explaining things and non-conformist approach to life.
I also believe that there is so much more to life than science alone. I lived briefly in Brazil and was made to understand how they got through more than 20 years of oppressive military government with music, poetry and art, having already had to get over 300 years of slavery. From this suffering these people brought us samba, bossa nova, tropicalia music and capoeira. Their story is sadly not unique, but I very much admire those people who overcome adversity by creativity and tenacity.
If you’re employing someone, what quality are you looking for above anything else?
Actually, we have a new recruit starting in July so I can tell you why we chose them over others. Primarily, I am looking for someone who can communicate. There is no point in having a set of skills and knowledge if you cannot convey some of this to others. In the recent interview my colleague and I agreed immediately that the candidate could be client-facing without any coaching. That is key. After that, I look for a willingness to learn, explore new ideas and challenges, take constructive criticism and take responsibility for their actions. Obviously, I also look for an excellent technologist, but with complementary skills to those that we already have in the company. Arrogance, insular working and confrontation have no place at Unitive Design.
Speaking Swedish or learning Martial Arts: Tell us the story…
Ha ha. Well, I have to tell you the story in reverse order. I got involved in martial arts when I was an undergraduate many moons ago. It was the only thing that I did outside of the physics lab. It was something that kept me sane (and fit). I can add a bit more that the readers might find amusing: I actually stopped learning martial arts in 2003 when I joined the University of Toronto as a postdoc. Overnight I swapped my martial art for dance. For the last 14 years I have been dancing salsa, lindy hop and ballroom. I had my own dance school in London up until last year when I had to prioritise Unitive Design. I still try to get out one evening a week though to keep fit (and sane). Swedish – I should probably take that off LinkedIn. My Swedish is terrible now because I don’t practise. I was a postdoc at the Royal Institute of technology in Stockholm from 2001 to 2003, working in the Quantum Optics group. I took a year of Swedish classes and could just about get by in the end. I can still order meatballs or herring when I visit Sweden though.
Research is expensive, so it’s great to hear you’ve just received some funding – what’s it for?
You are absolutely right, research is expensive, especially when you are small company with limited ‘spare cash’. We are very keen to start product development in parallel to our services business. This is the background that we have all come from and we see it as a more stable revenue stream and growth route long term. I cannot tell you too much about the project at this time since it is a technical feasibility project and our plan is to make a demonstrator by July next year. But we have an Innovate UK grant for a fibre-optic imaging system that, if we demonstrate it is viable, will fit in perfectly with our philosophy of making fit-for-purpose imaging solutions. I have high hopes that our solution will address a number of challenges that machine, industrial and scientific vision have today.
What are you most looking forward to at MediSens 2018?
Well, apart from the fact that the new venue has my name (although I have no idea if William Marsden is a relative), I am really looking forward to having the technologists in the heart of oncology in London. I have high hopes that, with the engagement of clinicians, surgeons, medical physicists and other key hospital staff from around UK and Europe, MediSens will create the right environment for everybody to ask each other the difficult questions and to spark open and frank discussion. Most of all, as always, I am hoping to learn a lot of new things.