It takes great courage, persistence and perseverance to take an idea to implementation when setting up a business. Add to the mix a scientific and/or medical project that involves rounds of clinical trials, expensive and lengthy fundraising, research and patents etc.
However, the potential to positively impact on the lives of millions is what keeps people and teams of scientific/medical researchers going through this long-haul marathon to potentially improve human lives. Therefore, what does it take to bring a scientific/medical product to market?
Kitty Liao, founder of the social enterprise Ideabatic gives us an insight into how she and her team have developed a much needed and worthwhile product that can solve crucial last-mile vaccine cold chain problems in developing countries. As an ex-CERN scientist Kitty set up Ideabatic in response to a global challenge - broken vaccine cold-chain in the last few miles of delivery in low-resource settings. Currently, nearly 20 million children miss out on basic vaccinations and each year, 2-3 million children die of vaccine-preventable disease. Up to 85% of vaccines become spoiled before arriving at their destination or during use due to human error. Ideabatic has developed a smart last-mile vaccine carrier SMILE to solve the problems.
SMILE is fail-safe, keeps vaccines in the required temperature range for 5-7 days without external power and reduces wastage to less than 5%. Ideabatic recently completed a trial in remote Madagascar and is scaling up the impact. Ideabatic has won 12 innovation awards and are supported by the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Centre for Global Equality, Expo 2020 Dubai, InnovateUK and Ikongo Hospital in Madagascar.
Business Feature of the Week: Ideabatic
1) Tell me about your business?
- I set up Ideabatic because I was inspired by a humanitarian hackathon,I participated in Switzerland in 2014.
- Ideabatic solves the crucial last-mile vaccine cold chain problems in developing
- Ideabatic develops SMILE that is fail-safe to ensure vaccines are valid during transport
and even during vaccination campaigns.
2) When and why did you set it up?
I started working on this problem in 2014 and incorporated Ideabatic in 2016. I participated in a humanitarian hackathon at CERN in 2014 where I used to work as an applied physicist. There, I realised there were many problems in low-resource settings that can potentially be improved or solved with smart solutions. Among which, I realised that vaccines were damaged by fluctuations of temperatures throughout the challenging ‘last-mile’ journeys. Inspired by such challenges and thinking that there is something that I can do with my cold-system and innovation background, I was determined to work on this problem.
3) How did you set up your business?
I started working on this last-mile cold chain problem with an aim to work on this full-time in late 2014. However, there was no funding or interest during the first 1.5 year to enable this, I carried on working on the idea and doing various types of work to keep me going. In 2016, I pitched to Imperial College Advanced Hackspace about my work and won a Hacker-in- Residence fellowship to work on my idea full-time. It was a non-paid role, but it allowed me to access facilities to build prototypes and contribute to helping imperial staff and students build their ideas into physical prototypes. I incorporated Ideabatic in April and won an IP funding to patent my idea in May.
4) What problems did you encounter? How did you overcome them?
- Funding: To build physical prototypes cost money. For the type of product that I am building cost a lot of money! This is because to build a good insulating box would allow us to test the cooling performance properly and there really isn’t any cheap prototyping method that provide the reliability. So, I would say, for me this was the first and biggest problem I encountered. I had to pitch for money and prizes and that was what I did. From smaller prizes £5K to £25K to $100K, I was able to conduct market research in the field, produce prototypes, iterate the design and conduct field trials.
- Technical challenges (prototyping for final product): There are always compromises and challenges during the development of the product. I’d have to collect as much information as I can in order to help decide that I hope adds value and provides maximum impact.
- Delays caused by manufacturing mistakes and contractors: These are challenges the I have encountered along the way. I tried working with reputable suppliers or those who were being given recommendations. It does minimise risks but does not 100% avoid it. It is essential that we have a clear agreement stated clear objectives to achieve, penalty clauses etc and have both parties signed. I also tried working with a third party who secure the funds and release it to the supplier until the product has been delivered and made correctly. I also realised that sometimes you really get what you pay for.
5) What 3 skills have you utilised and developed in setting up and running your company?
- Be assertive
- When something is wrong, tell them straight away
- Always make notes after a meeting especially with suppliers to talk about what you agreed so that they don’t deny or ignore things and there’s always evidence there.
6) What 3 pieces of tech or resources could you not live without that help organise
and manage your day/time? E.g. iphone, Cal, Safari, WhatsApp, Social Media
- Google Calendar
7) What have been the benefits to you in running your own business
- Flexible hours: I’m able to avoid rush hours to do daily shopping, doing sports etc.
- Develop a wider range of skills
- Build my own dreams
Completed a trial in remote Africa. This has come a long way: from idea back in 2014, design, development, testing, iterations etc to having something that I’m confident to show and test by field doctors and nurses. It’s just amazing and I’m very thankful for all the people who have helped me along this journey.
9) What are the next steps in developing your business and what support do you need?
- Speak to organisations working in the field around the world for trial and their interests.
- Raise funding for production to scale up the impact.
- Develop version 2
10) In hindsight, what one piece of advice do you wish someone gave you when you started out?
- Always take note and summarise meeting with your suppliers and have a clear agreement with them before working with them, regardless of how reliable they would seem and whether they are recommended by someone.
- Think very carefully who your sponsors are or people who give ‘free’ stuff. Saving money for the business is important but sometimes you might end up spending more money and time.
Want to know more?
Connect with Kitty and join the conversation @
To develop her product further Kitty needs to connect to field organisations doing work in human & animal vaccine delivery, disaster relief, mobile clinic, bio-specimen collection/delivery, human & animal disease control research.
If you or you know anybody who works in the field organisations that Kitty has identified please connect with Kitty via her website and social media! Every contact help this product get closer to market.