Linking with students to launch ‘new area’ of analysis

IT was during an impassioned speech to 500 business leaders that Derby entrepreneur Liz Fothergill called on the private sector to do more to help young people into work.

“I dream business can do more,” the boss of Pennine Healthcare and president of the East Midlands Chamber told her packed audience at Derby Theatre.

Among the attentive listeners was Jim Campbell, MD of diagnostics firm SureScreen.

Inspired by Ms Fothergill’s rallying call, at Marketing Derby’s Annual Business Event on January 23, Jim set up a meeting with the University of Derby.

His idea was to link up the university’s students with SureScreen, which has labs in Derby and Morley.

Now the two organisations are partners in science, researching ways to put SureScreen’s equipment for DNA analysis to other uses.

Jim said: “We’re looking at DNA in the ecology field.

“This includes researching the DNA of newts to reduce the length of time it takes developers to survey ponds for planning applications.

“We’re looking at how to identify which species of bats are present by analysing their droppings. This again will make it easier for developers wanting to convert old buildings, such as barns.

“We’re looking at dying coral reefs by analysing the water around them.

“And we’re seeing if we can identify instances of illegal tree felling by analysing the logs.”

Jim said biology students at the University of Derby would play a key role in the work.

He said: “We’ve got the equipment to do the work and we’ve got the contacts in terms of clients. They’ve got the technology and the DNA to these different species, so that we can identify them.

“The university is very keen to work with us because it’s another outlet for their students to work in.

“I think the relationship will work well because it is beneficial to both sides.”

Jim said he was excited about the link-up as he believed it could open up a whole new area of DNA analysis.

“Bringing DNA analysis out of the scenes-of-crime and forensic analysis field and into this area could help quite a lot,” he said.

“It’s quite a new thing. Last year, Natural England decided that, with pond analysis, it was too time-consuming to keep going back to do visual surveys, and so it approved the use of DNA tests.

“Let’s think of a new road. If you want to build a new road, you have to survey the area and that survey has to include all the ponds that are close by, and you have to establish whether there are newts close by.

“Currently, you have to have five visits with a torch, and you have to peer through the water. You also have to put traps in to see if you can catch any newts. So you have to keep going back. It’s a very labour-intensive job and very time consuming – it can take probably a month.

“Or instead, you can go down the route that we’re developing. That is to sample the water and establish straight away whether or not newts use that water.

“If they don’t, you can provide a map of the area showing the most obvious route for the road without disturbing the wildlife. So for the developer, it’s an ideal tool.”

DNA analysis is just one strand of the work carried out by SureScreen’s 45 employees.

As well as forensic investigations, the company specialises in rapid on-site diagnostic testing and advanced laboratory analysis for health purposes.

It is at the forefront of cancer-screening technology, helps Formula One racing teams when car parts fail and is developing devices to make diagnosis easier for doctors.

The company is even finding that its expertise in neurochemistry and nutrition is required by top-flight football clubs looking to give their players an edge.

Its work on nutrition will see it link up with the university again later this year.

Director Alex Campbell, one of Jim’s three sons, said: “In April or May, we’ll be working with the university to deliver a different method of nutrition for athletes.

“It is called liposomal – it’s a supplement you can take but is different to a traditional supplement or tablet that you might take.

“With traditional supplements, as the tablet goes through the body, you end up with 5-7% of the active ingredient, which is a very small yield.

“That’s because, as it goes through the body, it goes through the stomach and is attacked by the stomach acid.

“The liposomal supplement is different. It comes from a laboratory technique that’s actually used in cosmetics quite a lot, but it isn’t used in nutrition.

“It’s a method where you coat the active ingredient to produce a liposomed mixture that can get through most of the digestive system and to the gut, which means you get around 90%, rather than just 5-7%.”

Alex said SureScreen was working with the university to put forward a grant proposal to the Technology Strategy Board, for the work to be carried out.

“We’re looking to apply for about £200,000,” he said. “I think we’ll be successful because the technology is there but it needs re-purposing.”

Dr Michael Sweet, a biology lecturer at the University of Derby, said the link-up with SureScreen was beneficial to all concerned.

He said: “Something which the university is very proud of is being in the top ten universities for graduates getting employed after they leave.

“We’ve invested a lot of time and money in that and we’re looking to build on it further.

“We’re trying to build up a pool of businesses for our students to be involved with. The new venture we’ve got with SureScreen is beneficial to everyone.

“The university benefits as we’re showing prospective students that, if they come here, they can have a real experience. Students benefit as they get a hands-on approach to learning.

“Companies benefit as well. As the links strengthen, we can design modules to fit the needs of these companies and provide specific, tailored students for them.

“Lots of universities don’t do this sort of thing, unfortunately. They churn students out and assume they’ll get a job. They don’t realise how competitive it is and that’s why we’re fixing students up with businesses before they leave us.”