Some scientists thrive on theoretical research. Others put research to work. The world needs both. Metrasens’ science saves lives. We talk to CEO Dr Simon Goodyear.
By Nicky Godding
Putting science to work to save and protect people is the story behind Metrasens.
Metrasens is a Queen’s Award for Exportwinning company which makes detection systems for medical facilities, prisons and to support anti-terror strategies. Its innovations can detect the tiniest scrap of ferrous metal on, or inside, a human body. Why this is important will soon become clear.
Most of the Malvern-based company’s sales are to hospital MRI facilities where its detection systems are saving lives, and to detect illegal contraband in prisons. It’s now expanding into other markets, including anti-terror.
Deadly magnetic attraction
It’s easy to forget that MRI stands for Magnetic Resonance Imaging – and the potential that has for dangerous accidents. MRI scanners have such powerful magnets that any loose or unidentified ferrous metal will be drawn forcefully towards the magnet when it’s switched on. But install Metrasen’s Ferroguard system at the MRI facility’s entrance and a warning light will flash when anything containing ferrous metal, however small, crosses the threshold.
Every year across the world there are deaths and injuries to people in MRI facilities who forget this basic physics. One death in particular gave birth to the product.
CEO and Metrasens’ co-founder, Simon Goodyear, explains. “In 2001 one of our co-founders, Dr Mark Keene, was in San Diego attending a land mine conference. Returning to the hotel he switched on CNN. A six-year-old child, Michael Colombini, had been killed while undergoing a brain scan. His oxygen had run out and the MRI technnologists had temporarily left the MRI room unguarded. The agitated anesthetist was calling out ‘I need oxygen’. A passing nurse thought she was helping when she grabbed an oxygen cylinder and dashed into the room. The powerful magnetic forces pulled the steel MRI-unsafe cylinder out of her hands and it went flying across the room at around 40 miles an hour in a violent spin. It hit the little boy, killing him. “Mark knew we could have stopped that happening and the idea for our Ferroguard product was born.”
At the time Mark and Simon were working at QinetiQ in Malvern with their other co-founder, Matt Wooliscroft. Then it was called The Royal Signals Radar Establishment and undertook fundamental research to support the UK military.
Simon, a physicist, was in the magnetics team making equipment for land and sea mine detection systems, and submarine tracking, but spent much of his time there researching and submitting papers to the MOD.
They discussed the Colombini case and knew they had the solution to an underreported but massive global problem. Simon took out a license agreement for some of the work the team had done on Putting science to work to save and protect people is the story behind Metrasens magnetics with QinetiQ, and in 2005 they set up Metrasens.
“There are 27,000 MRI scanners in the world. While the number of deaths is small, the number of incidents is huge. It is a well-defined market which, for a start-up business is quite attractive, and we could see huge future potential to expand into the security market,” explains Simon.
Angel investment kick-starts growth
For two years the founders invested their own money into building prototypes and engaging with the investment community, all from Simon’s garage and spare room.
He was also commuting to the USA to secure interest in the product from the world’s largest MRI scanner market.
The project won £250,000 angel investment from Worcestershire investment group, The Claret Club, supported by West Midlands Advantage Business Angels, and the team also secured grants of around £100,000. This enabled the business, which had already secured orders from the USA, to establish itself properly. In 2007 the business moved into Malvern Science Park on favourable start-up terms.
“Our business angels liked the fact that we were already selling our product when they invested,” explains Simon.
The company’s first sale was to the Cardiff brain imaging Cubric Centre. Its second was to CalTech, a big research university in California.
By 2010 the company had secured over half a million pounds in sales, which attracted venture capital investment from Octopus Ventures. Annual turnover is now over £10 million, representing a phenomenal 90% year-on-year growth.
For Simon, this is just the start. “Eighty per cent of our sales are in the US. But we will be a global company. The MRI market is 50% US, 50% the rest of the world. The security market, where we are now very active, is 50/50, possibly more outside the US.”
Metrasens has focused on building its business in North America (Simon moved his family to Chicago three years’ ago to grow the business in its biggest potential market), but the heart of the company will always remain in Malvern where the fundamental research takes place.
The company also manufactures in Malvern, and that’s also not going to change in the foreseeable future, he says.
“Our USA subsidiary, Metrasens Inc, employs around 30 people and we will soon have 45 in the UK. Last year we manufactured around 2,000 products,” says Simon.
“We are a high quality, high value product. Quality and performance are key to our sales proposition, so full production control is core to our business, and that stays in the United Kingdom.”
Making the world a safer place
MRI safety was Metrasens’ first product, and its ferromagnetic metal detectors are installed in front of MRI facilities and associated changing rooms all over the world. Across the UK there are just 50 Metrasens systems being used in a country with 450 MRI systems, but the company’s product has secured widespread adoption across the USA, the Middle East and Asia.
Making prisons safer
The company’s second product, Cellsense, detects illegal mobile phones in prisons. It is now deployed in all UK prisons, and a large proportion of USA state prisons.
Cellsense can detect mobile phones, weapons and drug paraphernalia. “Most contraband in prison will have some element of ferrous material in which our system can detect,” explains Simon. “All prisons have fixed checkpoints, but prisoners have plenty of time to work out how to get around them. Our detection systems can be set up in seconds, anywhere.”
Conventional security systems are not infallible, and iPhones are mostly non metallic and glass. Added to that are the lengths prisoners will go to in concealment. Contraband can be secreted in bodily orifices, and cellphones are available the size of a keyfob. “One facility at Sun Valley in California found over 100 mobile phones in one day using our systems,” says Simon. “Two weeks later at another prison they found a further 47. We have given the prison system a tool to protect not only prison officers, but prisoners too, because they use contraband against each other.”
Metrasens is also gaining attention from the mental health profession after an incident closer to home.
Simon explains: “I understand a patient staying in a Gloucester mental health day facility was told he was going to be moved somewhere else. He didn’t want to go, so went out and bought a knife. He returned and stabbed the first member of staff he came across. The nurse died. The head of security trialled our system, comparing it to traditional archway and hand-held metal detectors, to help stop people smuggling in weapons for potential attacks, and also to combat self-harming.”
The Metrasens system detected 100% of illegal items. Existing hand-held detectors, even in the hands of trained people, detected 5% or fewer.
Metrasens equipment is now deployed in around 30 UK mental health facilities and has been launched into the US market. “It also helps maintain patient dignity,” says Simon. “The last thing they want to do when they go in and out of the facility is to undergo airport-style security. Our solution is more subtle, it can even be covert.”
Preventing terror and cyber-attacks
Metrasens is helping protect data centres globally and is about to launch a product which could help prevent devastating ‘loan wolf’ attacks seen in Europe, such as at the Manchester Arena bombing, and in the USA.
It sounds almost too good to be true. “Our system will screen up to 50 people a minute without disruption. It’s had a real impact in North America and we are exploring this technology with the UK government as well.”
The system will allow people carrying normal objects to walk by, but people with long weapons or suicide belts will be detected. Metrasens offers hugely effective security protection. But Simon says it’s just one layer. “X-ray, milimetre wave and other technologies could be used in conjunction with ours. It’s about looking at the risk and if ferrous metals are a risk (and they very often are) then you should deploy our products.
“We will continue to use solutions from science and physics to make the world a safer place.”