Inovus Medical – A Slick Operation
Inovus Medical specialises in designing and manufacturing healthcare simulators, with a specific sub-focus on surgical simulation and minimally invasive surgical simulation, to teach surgeons how to do keyhole surgery on areas of the body such as the abdomen or the womb. It is the brainchild of two entrepreneurs who started the company straight out of university. Inovus Medical’s mission is to transform surgical simulators.
We started the company because we knew these simulators existed but we needed to change how they were delivered on three counts which became our three core values,” says Dr Elliot Street, co-founder and CEO of the company.
Three Core Values
These three core values are Affordability, Accessibility and Functionality.
“When it comes to Affordability, existing simulators were really expensive and often surgeons needed to buy a new simulator themselves personally, which wasn’t possible with existing technology,” Street tells us. “We wanted to democratise access, which leads us into Accessibility. Existing technologies were often isolated, for use in simulation sectors of hospitals. That meant it was difficult to jump on these things between cases or to warm up, so we created take-home systems and systems that could be used in a clinical setting.”
Finally, to improve Functionality Street and his co-founder, Jordan Van Flute, asked how these technologies delivered training and if it was the best and most realistic training these systems could provide.
“The answer was no, because they’re primarily used in virtual reality, which is fine for macroscopic things but very hard to simulate microscopic feedback, how tissue should feel when you dissect it and things like that,” Street says. “So, we used augmented reality with real feel-soft tissues, and then built a digital environment around those to make them realistic and immersive.”
Those three core values drive everything Inovus does around new product development. But it is a tall order for a company to set itself the goal of being cheaper and better than existing products.
“To do that we took the hard road and realised we’d have to be a vertically integrated entity,” Street recalls. “We started as two students with no money, making this in our bedrooms and garages. We have grown organically into a vertically integrated entity controlling every element of the product journey.”
Inovus does all its prototyping in-house and manufactures everything in-house as well.
“That’s how we can produce things at such a high quality because we’re not relying on third-party manufacturers so we can pass those savings to customers in the NHS and overseas markets,” Street says. “We use production-level 3D printing for prototyping but also manufacturing to create a cost-saving in manufacturing without compromising on quality. That gives us the ability to offer good quality kit while democratising some great technology.”
This is supported by high-level service provision, supporting the technology once in the customers’ hands through Inovus’s direct commercial team. The company has a commercial presence in the UK with plans to grow their team across North America and Europe over the coming years.
Beyond those three concepts, Inovus has also been working hard at developing a new simulation platform called LapAR which is focussed on “connected surgical training”, a tool that has become invaluable during the COVID age.
“It’s an incredibly powerful online learning platform that in the days of COVID has been shown to be invaluable, allowing surgeons to receive or give the training completely remotely and completely connected almost as if they were operating together in the theatre,” Street says. “What we’re trying to do is add to the traditional ‘in person’ learning experience for surgical training, not remove it. Right now a lot of training isn’t adequate because people can’t do that kind of training in person, but we allow really important personal connections between trainers and teachers.”
From the Ground Up
While Inovus is doing valuable work today, building the company to where it is now was a huge project.
“Because we’re vertically integrated in the short term it’s obviously been a big challenge because you have to be very strategic about which parts of the company you grow at which time,” Street admits. “It can be a chicken and egg situation deciding what side of the business to develop next. That’s certainly been a challenge we continue to face but it’s a nice problem to have and we know it’s the right call for our users in the long term.”
Building a reputation has also been a challenge, especially where Inovus’s offering can appear to be too good to be true.
“Having started from a standing start in a sector that demands high levels of credibility, there is a challenge in cutting through against established entities and explaining to people just because we’re charging less doesn’t mean the technology is worse, that it’s actually much better,” Street says. “The equivalent is the shift from mainframe to personal computers. It helps that other sectors have gone through it but it’s a challenge we continue to face.”
One challenge the company has never had to struggle with is recruiting talent, thanks to the mix of skills Street and Van Flute bring to the table.
“We’re lucky in our founding and management team, myself and my co-founder, Jordan, have opposite skill sets,” Street says. “We’re not missing a key knowledge base or understanding at management level so we can identify talent and bring it into the company rather than relying on a recruiter or someone to tell us someone has the skills. We have a great system that allows us to objectively and subjectively measure candidates coming through the door. You’d be amazed where people pop up. We’re based in St Helens and the homegrown talent that crops up there never ceases to amaze me, electrical engineers working in Maplins, people we’ve come across by conversation with existing team members.”
Pivoting to COVID
Working within a very specific niche of the medical sector, Inovus has of course been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has also adapted to provide much-needed support to the NHS during this crisis.
“Our core business had a bit of setback because the focus was on PPE and ventilators,” Street admits. “We were lucky that we had the technology that helped solve problems COVID caused in our particular area, so once we had rebounded out of the initial shock phase, we asked what we could do about this issue and we found we were in a position to help.”
Just as being vertically integrated helped Inovus create high quality, low-cost simulation equipment, those same qualities would prove invaluable here.
“Because we’re a vertically integrated entity with those skills we can help directly with COVID through the ventilator challenges as a supplier of precision parts and help manufacturers of other elements across a range of PPE and other technologies,” Street tells us. “It was great to support that supply chain letting us keep our own people in work and actually increased the number of jobs we could offer at a time when many were struggling to find or offer employment.”
Moving forward, Street is excited for Inovus to spread its wings still further, entering international markets on a larger scale.
Talking about the future Street says, “Our manufacturing operation can sustain, drive and cope with a great deal of demand, we’ve successfully built our commercial team in the UK and our major driver in the future is to replicate that success in overseas markets in North America, primarily the US, the single biggest simulator market on the planet.”