A new beat generation
Professor Barrie Hayes-Gill, FREng, is an electronic engineer with a passion for connecting his research to applications in industry and healthcare. In his 35-year career at Nottingham, he has filed over 20 patents and, with Optics and Photonics Research Group colleagues, has secured more than £20m funding and investment from commercial and public sector partners.
A career highlight is the development of a novel wireless foetal-monitoring device and the creation of a spin-out company, Monica Healthcare, to develop this ground-breaking technology. The spin-out’s sale, for an undisclosed sum, to the global giant GE Healthcare generated significant revenue for the University and has made the technology available to millions of women and unborn babies around the world.
Professor Shearer West, President and Vice-Chancellor, said: “Professor Hayes-Gill is an outstanding researcher and an inspirational figure. Throughout a distinguished career he has matched a commitment to discovery and flair for building partnerships with a passionate advocacy of our mission to translate world-class innovation into products and applications that change lives.”
Back in 1987, Professor Hayes-Gill and his colleague Professor John Crowe wondered whether ECG (electrocardiogram) monitoring could detect foetal heartbeats better than ultrasound, which detects heart movement.
A foetus’s heartbeat ECG “on a good day” via a mother’s abdomen is around 10 microvolts, whereas the mother’s heartbeat is between 1,000 and 5,000 microvolts (a microvolt is a millionth of a volt). Add electrical muscle and background electrical ‘noise’ and the isolation – and detection – of a tiny foetal signal was highly problematic.
"It was a wonderful challenge for an academic engineer to play with."
Using an integrated-sensor patch placed on the mother’s abdomen, the team set about refining electronic signals and eliminating noise. By 1997, they hit a 45% success rate in detecting foetal heart-rate (FHR); in 1999 a patent followed.
The team had a champion in Professor David James, Dean of the Medical School at Queen’s Medical Centre, where trials and modifications increased the monitor’s sensitivity and reliability. But the 85-90% success rate needed for a commercial product was still distant.
A breakthrough came in the adoption of a three-channel sensor, along with the careful design of electronics to reach the theoretical noise floor. If the foetus moves out of the range of one channel, it falls into range of another on the sensor; this indicated movement – invaluable for monitoring foetal well-being – and secured a second patent. By 1999, the FHR success rate had reached 70%.
Professor Hayes-Gill spent the next four years securing funding, building a commercial team and developing a business plan. Monica Healthcare launched in 2005, with former PhD researchers Carl Barratt as Chief Executive, Jean Francois Pieri as Chief Technical Officer and Professor Hayes-Gill as Research Director. Dr Terry Martin, formerly of Oxford Medical, headed marketing; his connections with world-leading obstetricians secured the all-important US trials in 2009.
“We had fantastic results, our improved signal processing algorithm and shielded patch array now captured 85% of the FHR data compared to 72% from Doppler ultrasound,” said Professor Hayes-Gill.
US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval followed in 2011, and a North America deal in 2014 ensured further inroads into the US market. In March 2017, with an eye on soaring sales, GE Healthcare bought Monica Healthcare and the Novii Wireless Patch System.
“It’s been a very long journey,” said Professor Hayes-Gill. “We eventually had 12 patents, the spin-out, securing venture funding, deciphering the EU’s Medical Devices Directive and navigating entry into the US. Dr Susan Huxtable, as Director of Technology Transfer, and all of the Research and Innovation team have been brilliant and with us every step of the way.”
Professor Barrie Hayes-Gill and Professor John Crowe begin investigating novel ways of electronically detecting foetal heartbeats
Foetal Heart Rate (FHR) detection around 45%
FHR detection reaches 70%
700 FHR subjects now recorded
Herobic Innovation Research Fund of £15,900 to commercialise technology
Secure £520,000 in venture capital, EU and private funding
Launch of spin out Monica Healthcare by Hayes-Gill and PhD researchers
EU CE mark awarded
Commercial product launched
Trials in New York hospitals
FHR detection 85%
FDA clearance opens up lucrative US market
4* REF impact case study
GE Healthcare becomes Monica’s exclusive US distribution partner. Sales soar. In 2016, the Monica Novii was confirmed to have been used in 100,000 births at over 1,000 sites across Europe, Asia and North America.
Sale of Monica Healthcare to GE Healthcare
Hayes-Gill and the Monica team win both the 2019 RAE Colin Campbell Mitchell Award for the “Greatest contribution to advancement of any field of engineering within 4 years prior to the award” and the 2019 IET Innovation Awards, IET Healthcare Sector
Professor Steve Morgan, who leads the University’s Centre for Healthcare Technologies, said: “Barrie has been at the forefront of technology transfer activity for many years. He is a mentor for PhD students and colleagues and has been a driving force in encouraging the translation of technological discoveries into commercial applications.”
Another such breakthrough technology by Professors Hayes-Gill and Crowe is Surepulse – a cap-like electronic device that measures a baby’s heart-rate during resuscitation – allowing doctors to be hands-free, speeding up interventions and reducing risks.
Professor Hayes-Gill again is a key member of the team for Surepulse Medical, which became a spin-out in 2013. In June 2018, Surepulse was recognised as ‘Best Start-up’ by East Midlands Life Science Industry Association, Medilink. In 2019 they obtained their CE mark for sales in the EU and in 2021 the FDA cleared the product for sales in USA. In 2022 Surepulse was the winner of the "best academia and industry collaboration team” from East Midlands Life Science Industry Association.
Professor Hayes-Gill said: “My experiences as Research Director at Monica is invaluable to the Surepulse Medical team as we aim to repeat the success of Monica in the years to come for the benefit of not just the University but for all newborns.”
The ability to detect acidosis – oxygen deprivation - during labour and delivery has the potential to dramatically reduce morbidity in newborn babies. Clinicians around the world commonly used Doppler ultrasound, sometimes complemented with an ECG clip attached to the baby’s head.
But ultrasound may struggle to isolate the foetal heartbeat and the ECG clip is invasive, risks infections and can only be applied in the later stages of labour.
The ECG system developed by Professors Hayes-Gill and Crowe within the university, and then subsequently by Hayes-Gill and colleagues at Monica Healthcare Ltd, delivers a much sharper heartbeat detection than ultrasound, is more informative for obstetricians and more comfortable for expectant mothers, representing a world first wearable labour and delivery foetal monitor.
Barrie Hayes-Gill, FREng
Barrie Hayes-Gill is a Professor of Electronic Systems and Medical Devices, Faculty of Engineering, University of Nottingham and is a Fellow of The Royal Academy of Engineering..