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The scientist-turned-entrepreneur who hopes his Norfolk-made invention can improve medical research worldwide

PUBLISHED: 11:19 17 July 2017 | UPDATED: 12:17 17 July 2017

Scientist Dr Simon Stafford at his manufacturing factory in Watton. Picture: Ian Burt

Scientist Dr Simon Stafford at his manufacturing factory in Watton. Picture: Ian Burt

The nucleus of the idea is simple – but it’s one that Dr Simon Stafford hopes he can sell around the world.

Scientist Dr Simon Stafford at his manufacturing factory in Watton. Picture: Ian BurtScientist Dr Simon Stafford at his manufacturing factory in Watton. Picture: Ian Burt

His modifications to a commonplace piece of lab equipment were born of 20 years of frustration at what he saw as a substandard design which he worried was leading to inefficient research and misleading results.

Having patented his designs, his company Oxley Hughes – a combination of his grandmothers’ maiden names – is forging links with suppliers as it jostles for a slice of a global scientific equipment market whose value is measured in the tens of billions.

“One of my strengths has always been in refining processes and methods,” said Dr Stafford.

“I believe in Ockham’s Razor – don’t go for a complex design when there’s a simple one. And no one had addressed the microplate for 30 years.”

Dr Simon Stafford and (L) Andrew Barwood inside the Bowles and Walker manufacturing factory in Watton. Picture: Ian BurtDr Simon Stafford and (L) Andrew Barwood inside the Bowles and Walker manufacturing factory in Watton. Picture: Ian Burt

In experiments, he would use microplates – plastic trays containing 96 small wells, each containing a sample of cells to which solutions or treatments are applied with an eight-tipped pipette.

Dr Stafford’s design is a subtle modification, with a guiding channel running down the side of each of the 96 wells. Not only does it guide the pipette for the scientist adding or removing solution, who may perform the chore hundreds of times a day, but a ridge at the bottom also keeps its sharp tip away from the delicate sample of live cells at the base.

“It’s about how you put your science in the plates, and how you apply the solutions,” said Dr Stafford, 46.

“You might put cancer cells in the wells – think of them like an onion skin. Imagine what would happen if you scratched that.

The Bowles and Walker manufacturing factory in Watton. Picture: Ian BurtThe Bowles and Walker manufacturing factory in Watton. Picture: Ian Burt

“During the experiment, you might let the cells take up the drug and then come back and see if there’s cell death. But if there is cell death, it might not be down to the drug but because you have washed them away or scratched them away during the work,” he said.

“My design means better results and more confidence in those results, which means fewer repeats, less time wasted and lower costs.”

Dr Stafford, who has worked in cancer and diabetes research, described his advances as “enabling technology”.

“This will enable scientists and companies to make their products better and to make their science better,” he said.

Red Lodge-based Oxley Hughes has been working with manufacturer Bowles and Walker in Watton, which also has a stake in the Future50 business, so that thousands can be produced at short notice as demand grows.

Having only gone full-time in February, it remains early days for the company, but Dr Stafford has high hopes as he seeks investment, and says he has had interest from global distributors, as well as early orders from universities.

And he said he was enjoying his transition from scientist to entrepreneur.

“You have to have the idea and to believe in it, and to have the drive to make it work. Because I have the scientific background, I know that it works and the evaluations show that. I hope it’ll make money, but also enable better science.

“I want Oxley Hughes to be a major employer,” he said. “We’re working with Bowles and Walker because they’ve been here a long time – that’s what I want too.”

Oxley Hughes is a member of the Future50, a collection of Norfolk and Suffolk’s most dynamic and forward-thinking companies.

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