Friday 31 January 2020

INFANT PhD Mark O’ Sullivan in conversation with Jane Haynes, UCC Office of Marketing and Communications.

Featured in INDEPENDENT THINKING – The University College Cork Magazine.


A pocket-sized medical device that monitors and diagnoses brain injury in newborns could prove to be a game-changer for infant health.

Mark O’Sullivan, a UCC PhD researcher, is in the process of developing a small, portable, battery-operated device which could in the future replace the more heavy-duty EEG machines currently used in hospitals.

Mark, who studied Electronic Engineering at undergraduate level and completed an MSc in Music Technology, specialising in Audio Signal Processing, is undertaking his PhD with the INFANT Research Centre and the Embedded Systems Research Group in UCC’s School of Engineering.

The idea behind the Neurobell device evolved while Mark was researching EEG (electroencephalogram) signals (the signals produced in the brain) and how, through monitoring and processing them, he could come up with better methods of detecting brain injury.

Mark and his colleagues realised pretty quickly that there was huge potential for designing a device that could be ‘a disruptive technology in the field’.

“Currently, EEG monitors are large machines that are rolled into wards. It can take up to an hour to apply dozens of electrodes across the baby’s head and then set it up on a laptop or PC,” he explains.

“We figured out that all the electronics in that machine can be developed into a pocket-sized device.”

The ramifications, he explains, are potentially game-changing.

Firstly, by equipping doctors with a pocket-sized device, gone are the days of waiting hours for an EEG machine to be rolled into the ward.

But what’s the substitute for the neurophysiologist who, conventionally, is the one who comes in and reviews the hours and hours of recorded EEG data? This is where INFANT’s expertise plays a commanding role.

INFANT developed the ANSeR algorithm, which can detect seizures in newborns and is now licensed out and is actually making an impact,” Mark explains.

“My goal would be that the Neurobell project I’m working on now would be the next step forward; where we have developed similar algorithms and implemented them on a portable device.”

While Mark was well-supported by the expertise of INFANT and the Embedded Systems Research Group when it came to the ethical, regulatory and technical elements of his project, with plans to develop this product – and a company around it – he needed to learn the basics of commercialising the technology.

Enter GatewayUCC, a state of the art Innovation and Incubation Centre based at UCC, and one wing of UCC Innovation.

Mark was accepted onto GatewayUCC’s SPRINT Accelerator Programme. Designed to support early-stage start-ups, entrepreneurs and UCC-based researchers, SPRINT focuses on commercialisation of UCC-generated technologies and routes to market. The programme covers all aspects of the commercialisation process; from business strategy and legal issues, to crafting an elevator pitch and building a team to scale a business.

“I knew at that stage that, while I love the engineering side, I also wanted to pursue this and get this out of the university and into clinicians’ hands – that takes commercial expertise and knowledge which, at the time, I didn’t have,” explains Mark.

Starting SPRINT in October 2018 gave Mark his first experience of commercial development, and each module helped him to build a solid foundation of the essentials he needed to progress his research into business.

Every week offered a different lesson for Mark – financial basics, how to raise funding, the all-important regulatory elements, and beyond. With frequent seminars delivered by experienced entrepreneurs and industry experts, the opportunities to build a strong network were second-to-none.

“If there’s anything that I’ve learned, it’s that in business, your network is essentially everything. So, having these extremely high-profile individuals coming in to talk to us was really valuable,” he says.

Another skill that has proven to be invaluable, is learning the ‘lingo’ of the business world.

“I’m now at the stage where I’m applying for Enterprise Ireland funding,” says Mark. “Such applications are extremely commercial-based and, without the knowledge I got in Gateway, I don’t think I’d be able to go through the application process without additional support.

“And I now feel comfortable thinking and talking in a more business-minded language, which helps when talking with investors, and industry or enterprise office reps – I think they can see value in that.”

So, what’s the next step for Mark? Well, right now he is firmly fixed on developing his research and product into a spin-out company.

“With medical devices, it takes a long time to get there; in terms of getting through the regulatory steps, clinical investigations and, eventually, getting onto the market. So, I’ll be involved with UCC for another couple of years, but the overall aim is to get this into a start-up,” he says.

What is driving Mark right now, he says – due, in part, to the guidance of his PhD supervisors: Emanuel Popovici, Andriy Temko and Geraldine Boylan – is the prospect of making a positive clinical difference and benefitting others.

“The more I dig into the clinical side, the more I realise that this is something that could really have an impact – and that helps to drive me even more.”