Visitors to the "Pink Building" on the Imperial College campus in South Kensington, London, will see a glass noticeboard with the words Institute of Biomedical Engineering; Founder Director Professor Christofer Toumazou, with an impressive array of letters after his name. They might be forgiven for thinking that Toumazou was just another arcane academic, the progeny of highly educated parents and an elitist education.
They would be wrong on all three counts. The affable Toumazou is an inventor entrepreneur and a major shareholder in Toumaz Holdings, a company quoted on the Alternative Investment Market which is developing, among other things, a wireless digital plaster that monitors the body for vital life signs and could save medical providers millions of pounds. Clinical trials are under way at St Mary's Hospital in London while Cardinal Health, a shareholder and established American distributor, is standing by, waiting for the American Food and Drug Administration approval to come through so that production can start. "We are already allowed to sell the non-disposable patch in Europe," says Toumazou. Eventually the patch will be disposable.
Nobody could accuse Toumazou of being elitist. An energetic 48-year-old whose life is a hectic mix of business, academia and family, he failed his 11-plus and wound up at a secondary modern school in Cheltenham, where his Greek-Cypriot parents ran a catering business. After leaving with just a handful of O-levels, he took a national diploma course in technology at the local technical college and, suddenly, a light went on. "I got excited about technology," he recalls. From then, it was onwards and upwards. He went to Oxford Polytechnic, where he obtained a first-class degree in engineering followed by a doctorate run jointly by the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (Umist) and Oxford.
Toumazou moved to Imperial College in 1986 as a research fellow in the department of electrical and electronic engineering and in 1995, at 33, became Imperial's youngest professor.
Fascinated by electrical technology, he jumped at an opportunity to develop a mobile phone in Thailand that could operate with digital and analogue signals. Another invention, prompted by an approach from a Canadian firm, was an artificial ear that used an analogue silicon chip. "That demonstrated to me that you could use technology in healthcare products."
He started to dream about creating an academic department that combined medicine and engineering, where physicists, clinicians and engineers would work together. But he needed money. A chance meeting with Lord Rees-Mogg, the former editor of The Times, led to an introduction to the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, a charity that supports a broad spread of causes. When Rod Kent of Close Brothers became chairman, the trustees gave Toumaz a grant of £10m for his new department.
By then, Sir Richard Sykes had left GlaxoSmithKline to become rector of Imperial College, joining in 2001, and the two men hit it off. Both came from modest backgrounds and both were scientists who understood business. When Toumaz told him of the funding, Sykes persuaded Imperial to stump up a further £12m and in 2003 they created the department of biomedical engineering. Since then it has had seven commercial spin-offs, of which Toumaz Holdings was the first. Sykes agreed to become chairman of Toumaz in 2008, and has introduced more rigorous financial controls.
Toumazou had the idea of a plaster to monitor vital life signs when his son suffered kidney failure and needed regular dialysis. "His blood pressure, temperature and heart rate had to be monitored regularly," he recalls. "I wanted to replace those bulky ECG [electrocardiogram] machines and trolleys and find something that gave 24/7 monitoring and that could transmit your body's signals by wireless to a base station." The Sensium plaster has a sensor package that runs at ultra-low power, continuously measuring body temperature, heart rate and respiration. The data can be monitored by a nurse and fed automatically into the patient's electronic medical record.
"It is a disruptive technology," says Toumazou; that is techno-speak for something new and unexpected rather than an incremental improvement of existing equipment and something that will transform the economics of a sector, threatening existing suppliers.
He sees the first stage of the plaster's use in hospitals, monitoring patients in wards where the nurse has access to a base-station computer. "It will mean that post-operative patients won't need to spend so much time, if any, in intensive care," he says.
But Toumazou sees a much wider application in the home among those with chronic health problems. If, instead of someone needing to press a button or pull a cord for emergency help, a signal was transmitted to a central computer, lives could be saved along with costs. "If a problem can be detected early then it could save the NHS a lot of money," he says.
The current trial, which finishes at the end of this month, is designed to make sure that the digital plaster provides medical staff with physiological data as good as that from a nurse with a thermometer and an ECG machine. In the long run, the technology should enable some patients to recover from surgery and illness at home rather than in hospital. It should also give greater mobility to hospital in-patients.
With its shares trading at about 7p and capitalised at £41m, Toumaz is still a penny stock but it has some loyal shareholders including Herald, the specialist technology investment house. Before Christmas, a roadshow by Toumazou and his team to institutions resulted in him placing shares worth a further £9m for working capital to take the company through until production starts in November.
If sales go as planned, Toumaz could well attract some suitors although the presence of Cardinal may help to keep the company independent.