1. To start things off, please can you introduce yourself.
I’m Niall Kent and last September I won the Royal Academy of Engineering Launchpad Competition for my invention, AeroGraft, a novel material for bone grafting in dental procedures. I'm currently a postdoctoral researcher with the Centre for Nature Inspired Engineering at University College London (UCL). I joined UCL in January last year after completing a PhD at Bart’s and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, during which I developed and patented a novel bone cement.
2. How did AeroGraft come about?
I had the idea to develop a material tailored with the properties I wanted whilst completing my PhD. I was working with a few dental surgeons who were often complaining that they were lacking adequate grafting materials for some of their patients. The only thing I didn’t have at this stage was the exact way to engineer these properties into a material.
The discovery of the material itself was very fortuitous. At the time I was living with my brother Frank, who is an artist at The Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly. He was looking for a material that he could make sculptures from and was asking me if I could make a new material for him. When I was younger we had worked at developing some novel pigments together, so working with him was not new for me.
So, I started experimenting and came up with a material that was very low density and almost see-through, that could also be coloured at will. Then whilst studying the chemistry of this new material I realised that, with a few alterations, it could be used for repairing bone.
3. How does it work?
AeroGraft is a granular material that is mixed with saline before being placed into any part of the bone where there is bone missing. Once inside the body it acts as a source of the same mineral that bones and teeth are made of, then it bonds to the bone and is eventually ‘eaten’ by the body and replaced by normal bone. One of the key advantages is that you can control the rate at which it is replaced by bone, allowing you to tailor it to certain procedures and patients.
4. Last year you won the Royal Academy of Engineering Launchpad Competition. What has this done for your business?
The Launchpad Competition has given us a lot of publicity and put us in contact with a number of incredibly useful and supportive people.
After winning the competition I became a member of the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Enterprise Hub, which has given me access to various courses and training on subjects like developing a business model and pitching to investors. The Enterprise Hub has also put me in touch with several fantastic mentors who have helped by advising me on aspects of the business that are beyond my experience.
We also won funding as part of the prize (the winner receives the JG Gammon Award – the prize’s benefactor is David Gammon, a Cambridge Angel), which has helped us to continue making progress on the business.
It’s all been invaluable; the type of support I would never have had access to without the Academy. I cannot stress enough how fantastic their involvement is for me and other Enterprise Hub members. This year’s Launchpad Competition is open until 6th July, so I’d encourage anyone with a good idea to apply!
5. How was the experience of pitching your idea before the competition’s judging panel?
It was actually a very good experience. I was somewhat nervous going into it, but the judges made me feel very relaxed. During the Launchpad Competition there were two stages of judging after submission of the application form. The first stage was in front of the main judges, which was a short pitch of the idea followed by some questions. The shortlist was then narrowed down to just three candidates.
The final pitch was in front of an audience of 200, including a member of the Royal Family! As well as the panel of judges, the audience also voted on the winner, so it was a little more nerve-wracking but also enjoyable at the same time. It’s quite different from pitching to a small panel of judges where they can ask questions and you can discuss afterwards. With a large audience you really have to consider what you say so they are not left with unanswered questions after your pitch.
6. Why do you think so little innovation has been made in the field that Aerograft now finds itself in?
That’s a strange one actually. AeroGraft has been optimised for dental applications and in this field especially there has been quite a low level of
innovation for many years. This is in contrast to orthopaedics, which uses many of the same materials and has quite a high level of innovation. I think one of the big problems is the separation of these two disciplines in academia. They publish material in different journals and attend different conferences despite the fact that both industries share many similarities.
7. What aspects do you enjoy most about running your own business?
I like the idea that the things I have developed will potentially go on to really help people in practice. The day it is used on the first patient and helps with healing will be a very proud day for me.
8. What have been the biggest obstacles that Aerograft will have to overcome?
The largest challenge is probably regulatory approval. This will allow the product to be sold in the various markets that we apply for. This requires many studies to be performed to prove to the European Union that the material is safe. We do not anticipate any problems with this but it’ll be a long process.
9. Who would win in a fight between Batman and Spiderman?
Hmm, this is a hard one! When I was little, my brothers and I used to pretend to be superheroes and fight after watching cartoons on a Saturday morning. So if it were based on this it would be my older brother Luke as Batman.
But if I had to pick a winner between them then I’d have to go for Spiderman - he really has too much going on for Batman to deal with. Batman is just a guy with gadgets and a martial arts black belt; Spiderman is half spider and can shoot web from his hands.
10. What advice would you give to other young entrepreneurs?
I would say if you have an idea that you think is a good one, then first of all have confidence in it – you’re the one that has to push it and deal with people criticising it. When you are an entrepreneur you often can’t get the answers from a book to know you’re right, but having a lot of confidence in it will help you overcome these knocks.
That being said, do get advice from others. Seek out help from people who have skills you don’t. This is very important as you can’t do everything on your own and it will help you immeasurably moving forward. You’ll inevitably get different advice from different people – but that doesn’t mean any of it is wrong or less valuable. It’s your job as an entrepreneur to make the decision that is right for you and your business.
Lastly, I would go for every opportunity that you see and put everything you have into it. Many people are put off from applying for something when they see the statistics of their competition. The only time you are guaranteed to fail is if you don’t apply or give up. Remember that a person’s background doesn’t necessarily reflect the quality of their idea – great ideas can come from anyone.
11. What does the next 12 months have in store for you?
Hard work! There are a number of scientific tests we need to proceed with. Also, we’ve got quite a lot of developing on the business side of things to do in order to take this product to market. We’re still looking for funding to do all of this, which we hope will be a mixture of investment and government funding.