By Nicky Godding
Jarl Severn Owen Mumford

Medical device manufacturer Owen Mumford is making its biggest ever investment in research and development

The Managing Director of Owen Mumford, the Oxfordshire-based international medical device design and manufacturing group, is not a man for complacency.

Under Jarl Severn’s watch, Owen Mumford’s sales have increased by more than three-quarters since he joined as managing director in 2008, and it has opened two facilities in Asia.

Now, and for the next three years or so, Owen Mumford is investing more than eight per cent of its annual turnover, around £21 million, into research and development for new products.

“We design devices that improve the delivery of healthcare and home health treatments for people around the world, and this is the biggest investment we have ever made in new product development,” said Jarl.

The company was established more than 60 years ago. Set up by John Mumford and Ivan Owen with his father Thomas, it is still a family business with the next generation, Mark Owen and Adam Mumford now respectively chairman of the Group and chairman of the holding company.

One of the company’s first products, launched in 1952, was a novel artificial respiration device they named the Oxford Inflating Bellows, but it is fair to say that for a while some of its products were not quite so innovative. These included window handles for the automotive industry, showerheads for B&Q and even, at one point, Christmas decorations for Woolworths.

Such low-tech diversions are now a distant memory. By the 1980s Owen Mumford had launched itself spectacularly into the medical device market with the world’s first automatic blood sampling lancing device. For the first time, diabetics could monitor blood glucose levels by taking blood samples from their fingers, rather than relying on less accurate urine samples, which had previously been the case.

Fast forward 60 or so years and the company has four Queen’s Awards for Enterprise and 175 patents under its belt. It is also still selling its original concept for the lancing device, along with many other products invented by the company.

Research and development already delivering results

But even the most innovative product will eventually see itself replaced with a new way of doing things, hence Owen Mumford’s constant and substantial investment in R&D.

The company is known best for its devices to help diabetics, but it currently generates the biggest revenues from auto injectors and injection pens which administer drugs to those suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and infertility as well as many other therapy areas.

More than £20 billion worth of drugs are injected each year by patients around the world using auto injectors made in Oxfordshire by Owen Mumford.

However, as more drugs are developed using biologics and therefore requiring subcutaneous injections, and more people are diagnosed with diabetes, the demand for Owen Mumford’s medical devices continues to grow.

“China and India in particular are seeing a rise in diabetes, partly because of a change of diet, but also because diabetes is increasingly being seen as a treatable condition,” said Jarl. “Doctors in these countries are checking people for diabetes at an earlier stage, increasing demand for our products.”

In 2017 Owen Mumford won its latest Queen’s Award for Innovation for the Unifine Pentips Plus, an all-in-one pen needle for diabetic injections. It contains a new pen needle and a convenient removal chamber for interim disposal.

The company’s latest investment in R&D is delivering results. Last year saw the global introduction of Owen Mumford’s unique springless pre-filled safety syringes, Unisafe, arousing interest in almost all the top 20 pharmaceutical companies in the world. Later in September it launched a new safety pen needle, again designed to provide a safer product for healthcare professionals to minimise the risk of accidental needle stick injuries.

A race to be the first

The market is seeing huge investment into finding an alternative to injecting insulin. Few diabetics enjoy their routine injections and would prefer, if one was available, swallowing an insulin tablet. This would make some of Owen Mumford’s products currently on the market redundant over time as uptake increases and costs come down.

Except noone has successfully produced one yet. “Insulin is a biological drug, a living thing,” explainedJarl. “Currently, the only way to get it into a human’s system is by subcutaneous injection. Some of the big insulin companies claim to be close to achieving it in tablet form, but we haven’t seen it commercialised yet.”

And Owen Mumford’s original finger pricker (lancing) device, also remains the most effective way of measuring glucose in the blood.

“There are other ways of measuring a person’s glucose levels: saliva, urine – Google even made a contact lens that took tears from your eyes and measured the glucose in them, but finger pricking still remains the most accurate,” said Jarl.

“If a person takes too much insulin, it can kill them, so absolute accuracy is essential. And the new technologies, so far, have been short of the age-old capillary blood sampling using the finger prick method.”

But Jarl is not complacent and knows that new technology will appear to solve these problems in a different way. “And we, like everyone else, are looking for solutions in that area,” he said.

The challenges of overseas expansion

Owen Mumford runs two manufacturing facilities in the UK, at Woodstock and Chipping Norton, employing more than 700 people. These sites are working at almost full capacity and the company is already considering the development of a new manufacturing facility at Witney, where it owns around 12 acres of land.

It also has factories in Malaysia, sales offices in Germany and France and employs more than 60 people in sales and distribution in North America where it is planning to open up its established distribution channels to other UK health tech companies seeking to move into the region.

Owen Mumford opened its first overseas factory in 2015, and Jarl says it was fraught with problems. “One of the big challenges of setting up abroad is you don’t know what you don’t know, and nor does anyone else. You can’t totally rely on consultants, however expert they appear to be. You must visit the countries, be prepared for unknown factors and have enough buffer in the project plan.”

But persistence paid off for Owen Mumford. “With nearly 100 people engaged in Malaysia we are now hitting our stride and producing high quality products with confidence.

“And after a long and painfully slow start, China has been a great success for us. In the last 12 months we have doubled our business. Not least because of the Union Jack, but also our Queen’s Award for Enterprise on our product packaging.”

Understanding global markets drives growth

While the NHS remains its most important customer in the UK, Owen Mumford is a global company. It has a significant presence in North America, a solid customer base in Australia and on Continental Europe and a fast-growing business in South East Asia.

“Asians are increasingly aware of the benefits of good health care,” said Jarl. “Consumers in markets such as China are insisting on systems or items from the West when they don’t have adequate confidence in their local manufacturer suppliers.”

Conversely, in Northern Europe, the focus is increasingly on cost. “We are now shipping goods to China from Oxfordshire while the NHS is importing the same type of products from China. It is quite extraordinary,” he added.

“What sets the UK apart from others in terms of high-quality manufacturing, is our adherence to regulatory requirements. We treat regulatory compliance very seriously as a nation. We play by the rules and that’s a very important asset for the UK.”

The big, untapped pool of future STEM experts

Oxfordshire’s almost full employment is a problem for companies such as Owen Mumford, because to continue growing, it needs more skilled people.

The company is very active in the local community, including working with Marlborough School in Woodstock, and Chipping Norton School where a full university degree scholarship for the student with the best A level results in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects is just one of the programmes being sponsored by Owen Mumford.

It also offers apprenticeships, employing around a dozen apprentices at a time. “But there is a big, untapped potential pool of STEM subject experts,” says Jarl. “They’re called women. I was delighted to see more women than men achieving better A-level results in STEM subjects this year for the first time ever. This could be a huge opportunity for women to shine in a sector where they are currently severely under-represented.”

A great idea can come from anywhere

Jarl and his Head of Research and Development, Andy Vardé, are always on the lookout for young companies to support.

“Over the years we’ve supported Oxford University spin-outs and invested in other companies,” said Jarl.

One such company is London based Forte Medical which has designed a unique urine collection device. Catching urine midstream is difficult, but if you don’t, it’s immediately contaminated. Forte Medical has developed a product that automatically catches midstream. Owen Mumford is now a shareholder and its exclusive distribution partner in the USA.

It’s connections such as these which drive Jarl’s ambitions for Owen Mumford.

“The business will do just fine on its own, but it will do even better if we support people to develop their ideas from which we can all benefit,” he said.