The team behind a unique Breath Biopsy® platform that has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives and $1.5 billion in healthcare costs globally has been named the winner of the MacRobert Award 2018 by the Royal Academy of Engineering. Owlstone Medical’s ReCIVA Breath Sampler has opened up the potential for earlier diagnosis and precision medicine across cancer, inflammatory disease and infectious disease.

Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal, as Royal Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, presented the team of engineers from Cambridge-based company Owlstone Medical with the MacRobert Award gold medal and a £50,000 prize at the Academy’s Awards Dinner at the Tower of London.

The winning team members are: Billy Boyle, Co-founder & CEO; David Ruiz-Alonso, Co-founder & COO; Max Allsworth, Chief Scientific Officer; Alastair Taylor, VP of Engineering; Matthew Hart, VP of Research and Development.

Profile: Owlstone Medical

Owlstone Medical has created the first platform capable of capturing breath samples and analyse them in a robust and reproducible way. These samples can be used to identify the unique chemical ‘biomarkers’ of a variety of diseases, also known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), in human breath. As VOC levels change at the very earliest stages of disease and provide information on the current activity of cells and tissue, the breath samples could lead to earlier diagnosis of diseases such as cancer when treatments are more effective and more lives can be saved. Breath biomarkers also have the potential to revolutionise the way medicine is prescribed, as they could be used to monitor drug effectiveness and match patients to the correct treatment, and cut healthcare costs by lowering drug wastage.

The ReCIVA Breath Sampler, inspired by discussions with more than 100 experts from design engineers to clinicians, is used to capture the samples in a non-invasive way, and these are then analysed through the company’s Breath Biopsy platform. The platform uses Owlstone’s microchip chemical sensor technology (FAIMS) to detect specific disease biomarkers with a high level of sensitivity. Developing a standardised method to collect and analyse breath biopsies means that Owlstone can build a robust, comparable Breath Biopsy Digital Biobank including thousands of breath VOC profiles matched to phenotype and overcome many of the historical challenges associated with the identification of VOCs and how these are associated with specific diseases.

Owlstone Medical is developing tests to diagnose lung and colorectal cancer, two of the most common cancer killers worldwide and is currently undertaking clinical trials with the NHS and Cancer Research. The company also supplies Breath Biopsy products and services to academic, clinical and pharma partners who want to develop breath based diagnostics for their own applications. GlaxoSmithKline recently chose to integrate the Breath Biopsy platform into the clinical development programme for one of the new drugs it is developing for respiratory disease, to assess whether it is possible to identify the right patient for the right treatment.

The Owlstone Medical team were up against Oxford Space Systems for their new generation of origami-inspired, innovative and cost-competitive satellite antennas and structures, and Williams Advanced Engineering and Aerofoil Energy for Aerofoils, an aerodynamic shelf-edge technology that significantly reduces energy consumption in supermarket and convenience store fridges.

The MacRobert Award, run by the Royal Academy of Engineering, is the UK’s longest running and most prestigious award for engineering innovation. First presented in 1969, the Award has recognised the extraordinary potential of innovations that have changed the world we live in. In 1972, for instance, the judges honoured the development of the first CT scanner by EMI – seven years before its inventor Sir Godfrey Hounsfield received the Nobel Prize. Last year’s winner was the Cambridge-based team behind the Raspberry Pi.

The Award honours the winning organisation with a gold medal, and the team members a cash prize of £50,000. The presentation of the Award recognises outstanding innovation, tangible societal benefit and proven commercial success.

Dr Dame Sue Ion DBE FREng FRS, Chair of the MacRobert Award judging panel, said:

"All three finalists showed outstanding innovation, and I am sure they will change the way we live, and how businesses operate, for years to come – whether that be by enhancing the space sector, helping companies slash energy consumption, or by improving healthcare.

"Owlstone Medical stood out because of the extraordinary engineering its breath sampler, and the associated breath biopsy platform, required to bring these technologies to life. The company has demonstrated exceptional innovation at every stage of development; from the mask used to help capture breath, the tubes that help collect the samples, to the software and hardware designed to ensure the tests are reliable and repeatable.

"Owlstone Medical has now created a device that is dependable and non-intrusive, and has the potential to revolutionise the way we diagnose and treat a vast array of diseases. The societal benefit is clear to see, and I believe they could realise their vision of saving more than a billion dollars in global healthcare costs and saving hundreds of thousands of lives."

Billy Boyle, co-founder and CEO at Owlstone Medical, commented:

"It’s a huge honour to have won the MacRobert Award and for the whole team to be recognised for their hard work over the last 3 years in developing the Breath Biopsy platform and establishing breath diagnostics as a new industry category. We know that in cancer, early detection is our greatest opportunity to save lives - our company mission is to save 100,000 lives and we won't stop until we achieve this."

Notes for editors

  1. About the MacRobert Award
    First presented in 1969, the MacRobert Award is widely regarded as the most coveted in the industry. Founded by the MacRobert Trust, the award is presented and run by the Royal Academy of Engineering, with support from the Worshipful Company of Engineers.

    More information: The MacRobert Award

    Previous winners include EMI Ltd, who in 1972 developed the CT Scanner, a vital medical device that can now be found in almost every hospital in the developed world. In 2002 Cambridge Display Technologies won the MacRobert Award for its light emitting polymer displays for televisions and smart phones. In 2016 the Award was given to Blatchford for Linx, the first ever prosthetic limb with integrated robotic control of the knee and foot.


    Last year’s winner was Cambridge-based Raspberry Pi, for the small but mighty microcomputer that has revolutionised control systems and redefined how people engage with coding. Originally conceived as a way to boost computer science applications to the University of Cambridge, Raspberry Pi has created a whole new class of computer that has transformed the way engineers design control systems in industry. Before Raspberry Pi, each industry had its own suppliers of control computers, which in turn reduced competition and lowered quality. The robust and flexible Raspberry Pi has swept this market away and over half of Raspberry Pis are now sold to industry.

    Raspberry Pi has also proved phenomenally successful in its original educational ambition. Over 16 million devices have been sold in total, re-engaging people with the power of coding, and helping to ensure that future generations are equipped for the increasingly digital jobs of the future. This success has been enabled by the Pi’s affordability: the product has been developed at a price-point that makes it accessible to anyone: just $35 (£28) for the flagship product, or an even smaller version, the Raspberry Pi Zero, at $5 (£4).

    The 2018 MacRobert Award judges are:
    - Dr Dame Sue Ion DBE FREng FRS (Chair) - Consultant; Honorary President, National Skills Academy for Nuclear
    - John Baxter CBE FREng FRSE - Chairman, Advanced Nuclear Research Centre (ANRC), University of Strathclyde; former Group Head of Engineering, BP
    - Keith Davis - Former Chairman, The MacRobert Trust
    - Professor David Delpy CBE FREng FRS FMedSci - Emeritus Professor of Biomedical Optics, University College London
    - Professor Nick Jennings CB FREng - Vice-Provost (Research and Enterprise), Imperial College London
    - Professor Sir John McCanny CBE FREng FRS - Regius Professor Emeritus, Electronics and Computer Engineering, Queen's University Belfast
    - Professor Ric Parker CBE FREng - Former Director of Research and Technology, Rolls-Royce plc
    - Dr Dame Frances Saunders CB FREng - Former Chief Executive, Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL)
    - Professor Sir Saeed Zahedi OBE FREng RDI - Technical Director, Blatchford
  2. About the Royal Academy of Engineering
    As the UK’s national academy for engineering, we bring together the most successful and talented engineers for a shared purpose: to advance and promote excellence in engineering.

    We provide analysis and policy support to promote the UK’s role as a great place to do business. We take a lead on engineering education and we invest in the UK’s world-class research base to underpin innovation. We work to improve public awareness and understanding of engineering. We are a national academy with a global outlook.

    We have three strategic challenges:
    - Make the UK the leading nation for engineering innovation
    - Address the engineering skills crisis
    - Position engineering at the heart of society

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