Case study: Animal magnetism

Steve Roberts explains how a novel business idea – a specialist MRI scanner for horses – led his physics career down an unusual and rewarding path

My career in the veterinary industry began, as so many adventures do, over a pint of beer. At the time, I was head of high-field magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) applications at a company called Marconi Medical Systems in Farnham, Surrey, and while I found the development projects there interesting, I wasn’t enjoying the large corporate environment. So when a work colleague invited me out for a drink to discuss his idea for a new start-up company, I gladly accepted.

My colleague had spotted an opportunity during a visit to his local veterinary hospital. Horses that require veterinary care typically have issues related to lameness, most of which stem from problems within the hoof. The "gold standard" for imaging this type of soft tissue is an MRI scan, but this is expensive and horses have to be anaesthetized to fit their legs into human scanners. Horses also sometimes react badly to anaesthetic, which makes it hard to justify using it for a diagnostic procedure, especially if the horse is taking part in professional competitions. If an MRI scanner suitable for standing, conscious horses could be developed at an affordable price, it might transform equine diagnostic medicine.

In many ways, the idea sounded like a good career move for me. The research I’d done for my PhD in physics at the University of Surrey had focused on MRI techniques for the oil industry, developing advanced imaging methods to visualize oil and water within rock. As part of that research, I had helped develop a unique MRI scanner, and after completing my PhD I’d moved to a spin-out firm that my academic supervisor had founded. This company focused on novel MRI applications in the medical and industrial sectors, and it gave me a fantastic grounding in the field. During my four years there, I’d worked alongside some incredibly talented engineers and scientists on many different applications and products, including the world’s first 4.7 T human MRI scanner, one of the very early clinical 3 T systems, and even a scanner for imaging cases of yogurt pots on a production line. I’d also worked on customer training, system fault finding, scientific presentations and eventually line management of other engineers and scientists.

All of these skills would, I knew, come in very handy at a small start-up. But I was just about to become a dad, and joining a start-up felt risky. So rather than quitting my job at Marconi, I agreed to act as a consultant to the new venture. Hallmarq Veterinary Imaging was created, and in 2001 a small team began developing the world’s first commercial standing equine MRI scanner. I helped optimize the prototype system and immediately saw both the potential of the product and areas that could be improved. I could see there was a real need for this product, too, so in early 2003 I decided to join Hallmarq and became technical director – a role I still hold today, 15 years after that first pint of beer.

Building a better scanner

When a horse enters a standing scanner, the animal is sedated, but it can still move slightly while being imaged. Such motion can degrade the images and produce artefacts that make scans hard to interpret, so one of our first challenges was to develop effective motion correction methods. This was a complex task, because we needed the MRI magnet to be free to move up and down the horse’s leg. The magnet also had to be big enough to scan the area of interest, but small enough to allow space for the horse’s other leg.

These constraints prevent many conventional MRI motion-correction methods from working effectively, so we had to develop new ones. Our solution tracks the position of the horse’s leg and can "rewind" parts of the scan if excessive movement is detected. We can also correct for small rotations of the joint. The product evolved a lot during the early years as we worked closely with our customers and found new methods to improve image quality.

As the company grew, I eventually took on overall responsibility for company operations while continuing to manage product development and the technical team. Today Hallmarq has nearly 100 MRI installations in 23 countries. Much of this success is down to our technology, but we also developed a business model that allowed veterinarians to have MRI capabilities on a "pay per scan" basis. It was the combination of these technical and commercial innovations that led Hallmarq to become profitable and successful, with more than 60,000 horses scanned thus far.

Our success also led to several awards in 2015, including an Innovation Award from the Institute of Physics (which publishes Physics World) for developing our novel motion-correction methods, and two Queen’s Awards for Enterprise. During a visit to Buckingham Palace as part of the latter awards, I was invited to spend a few minutes talking with Queen Elizabeth about the various innovations at Hallmarq. A truly exceptional and unforgettable highlight of my career so far!

In recent years, we have begun to branch out beyond equine scanners, and I have led the development of a high-field MRI scanner specifically for imaging dogs and cats. The "PetVet" scanner has its own innovations, with specially developed radio-frequency (RF) coils, software and RF shielding integrated onto the magnet. We have also just started to venture into veterinary computed-tomography (CT) imaging in collaboration with Toshiba Medical UK.

Commercial and logical mindsets

Working in product development at Hallmarq has been intense at times, but ultimately very rewarding. Visiting customer sites, giving scientific presentations and working with some of our component suppliers has taken me all over the world, and while the extended time away from my family can be tough, I always strive to find a balance. Working with different cultures and customers has been an important part of my career, and it requires skills that aren’t generally taught during a physics degree.

For example, what works well in one territory may require significant modification to work well elsewhere. This includes the product itself and how we support it, as well as marketing and sales. Customer perception is also very important. Even if a product works in a technical sense, if customers perceive something different, they may not accept it. Emotion can play an important part in business, and this can be a steep learning curve for many logically minded physicists.

I feel very fortunate to have achieved my goals of working as a physicist, developing new products and helping create a successful business. Management now takes up most of my time, but I do still work on product development occasionally. I am also a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) ambassador, and I get immense enjoyment talking about science to young people at local schools. By doing so, I hope to help inspire some of the next generation of scientists and engineers.

About the author

Steve Roberts is the technical and operations director at Hallmarq Veterinary Imaging