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How innovation and engineering is transforming the lives of patients on dialysis

Dr Mark Wallace (BEng Engineering (Electrical), 1996; PhD Engineering, 2001) is Lead Innovations Engineer at Quanta Dialysis Technologies. He is one of the team which was awarded the Royal Academy of Engineering’s MacRobert Award for UK engineering innovation. The creation of the Quanta Dialysis System (SC+), a compact and portable dialysis machine that is transforming the lives of patients with renal failure, is already being used across 12 NHS Trusts. The innovation is both CE-marked and FDA-cleared and stands to be a global leader in the multibillion-dollar industry. Throughout this piece, Mark reflects on this remarkable achievement, the challenges along the way, and his determination to inspire more young people to embrace research and innovation to positively impact society.

Can you tell us how you and the team at Quanta Dialysis Technologies came to win the 2022 MacRobert Award?
The MacRobert Award celebrates engineering developments that demonstrate outstanding engineering innovation, commercial success and tangible societal benefits. Quanta’s haemodialysis system impressed judges in all three criteria. The system offers patients a dramatic improvement on quality of life since it is easier to operate, faster to train on and more mobile than traditional dialysis machines. This flexibility also enables patients to treat themselves at home overnight, receiving more dialysis care than they would in clinical settings, eliminating the weekend gap without dialysis.

The elimination of expensive and time-consuming sterilisation between treatments thanks to the disposable cartridge developed by Quanta, means treatment for patients is more straightforward and hospitals are able to save money on maintenance, repairs and transporting patients to clinics. Quanta is already working with NHS Trusts and, during lockdown, provided its entire UK SC+ stock to the NHS in order to relieve pressure on hospitals and ICUs.

What impact will your innovation have on society?
By introducing our compact home dialysis machine, patients can treat themselves more regularly, in the comfort of their homes. The treatment also saves the NHS 25% of their treatment costs.

“I have a fantastic picture that a 9-year-old girl drew for me. Her mum was on dialysis, and she couldn't understand why her mum had to go to hospital to be made better so often. Her mum was put on home dialysis and, in doing that, the little girl said that she got her mummy back. For me personally, that means more than anything because it shows the lasting positive effect on society. ”

What motivated you to work in the field of engineering innovation?
I'm passionate about engineering and innovation and believe it should exist to positively impact society. Innovation enables us to achieve new things or provide us with the capabilities to deliver them in a better and more efficient way. I don't think you have to be called either an engineer or an innovator to do that. It’s about applying an idea from one sphere to another, and that's exactly what we did with the Quanta Dialysis System.

What does a normal working day look like for you?
It seems impossible to pin down 'normal', especially when you are part of a start-up organisation. You must evolve as a company to innovate, not just with products, but business and processes too. I like to learn about systems and understand how they function. I conduct experiments, record, and apply results. It rarely happens, but you do get that eureka moment, where all the pieces suddenly drop into place. As Thomas Edison once said, “It’s 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”

I spend a significant amount of time supporting existing products. If it’s early in the product development phase, I try to generate interest and revenue to progress to the next stage.

How did your time at Warwick aid your personal and professional development?
I found my time at Warwick incredibly challenging. I almost gave up on my studies for good when taking a job at a communications company in Coventry.

During my PhD studies, I faced some difficult personal circumstances, including the unexpected death of my father. It was only then I realised I didn’t want to give up and decided to return and finish my thesis, not just for myself, but for my father and all the other introverts, like me, who struggled to adapt to student life. So, I worked 9-5pm and came home each day to write my thesis into the early hours of the morning.

“All these experiences contribute to who I am as a person. I've had to adapt, evolve, and learn never to give up. ”

How can we encourage more young people to embrace innovation?
You cannot beat experiential learning gained from creating, building, and innovating. For example, we need to encourage more people to seek out placements and take up practical opportunities to learn from a young age. It’s the same at university. These practical skills will set you apart from the field when looking for future employment.

What does the future hold for you?
After seeing the positive impact that the dialysis machine is having on society, I’ve been able to reflect on what is a ‘wow’ moment for me and the company. We’ve developed a product that is keeping people alive on a global scale.

I want to show others that you can create something wonderful in the face of adversity and obstacles that life may throw your way. I’d love to give students and young people opportunities to innovate and learn, and hopefully encourage more students into engineering as a result.