Dentist extracts funds for invention from abroad : INSIDE BUSINESS

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BRITAIN has never been short of inventiveness. However, what it still seems to lack, if John Derbyshire's experience is anything to go by, is the investment necessary to develop bright ideas and bring them to market.

Mr Derbyshire, 41, is a dentist with a surgery at Netherton, near Huddersfield, Yorkshire. He had another practice nearby, which he had to sell to raise funds so that he would have more spare time to develop his "big idea".

But the really big money for his laser drill has come from sources closer to the Alps than the Pennines. The Austrian government was so impressed with his blueprints that it gave him 100 per cent funding to turn them into reality. Needless to say, there was one condition: that what is today known as the Dentek diode-laser drill should be made in Austria.

Clinical trials at the University of Graz have shown that the Dentek is capable of removing decayed tooth tissue without damaging healthy teeth. It can also kill bacteria present in diseased gums or in abscesses, and it can glaze the surface of sound teeth to prevent them from decaying. Surgery is possible without bleeding.

Although the laser drill is not totally painless, Mr Derbyshire believes it could increase the number of fillings done without a local anaesthetic from 5 per cent to 30 per cent.

He says the diode-laser technology behind it is considerably more compact than that of competitive systems. One piece of equipment the size of a small, wall-mounted hand-dryer will channel laser power through fibre-optic cables into four surgeries at once.

Tests have been completed and the drill is expected to be on the market in Austria in about three months' time.

Siemens, the electronics company, has won the marketing rights in Austria and Germany. Mr Derbyshire was also due to travel to Chicago this month to negotiate with a potential backer for the US market. At about £17,000, Dentek is less than half the price charged for other laser drill systems in the United States.

Like many an innovation, the laser drill came about by chance. A patient who came in for some bridge work turned out to be a scientist working on laser treatment for gallstones. Mr Derbyshire felt that, with a few modifications, the same technology could be used on teeth. Scientist and dentist are now partners in the business.

They say they would have preferred to develop the laser drill closer to home. "Our initial aim was to set up a British company, using British parts and employing British labour," said Mr Derbyshire . However, they came up against the rules of the Department of Trade and Industry.

"They will sponsor you under the Enterprise Initiative scheme," he said, "but you have to prove that the project would go ahead anyway, without their backing. A grant of £25,000 is on offer as long as that represents only a quarter of your spending. We would have had to find another £75,000."

Attempts to raise private venture capital also proved fruitless. "They just laughed," he said. "Looking at it from their point of view, I suppose I was a high risk. I was a dentist, not a businessman. And the DTI has no adequate funding for new ideas, which is why planes to the continent - our competitors -are filled with British businessmen taking their ideas abroad.

"Obviously, not all ideas work. But in the case of our project, the Austrian government was prepared to take a much bigger risk than the British.

"We're disappointed about it, but not bitter. The only time it upsets me is when I have to find £600 for a ticket to Austria."

And even that is refunded.