The Big Interview: Dr Dave Hughes, CEO and co-founder of Novosound

Dr Dave Hughes is chief executive and co-founder of remote sensor specialist Novosound, which says it has created a “ground-breaking” technique for the mass-production of printable ultrasound sensors.

The business, a spin-out from the University of the West of Scotland, explains that its mission is to “push the limits of ultrasonic imaging and measurement”.

It says its patented thin-film manufacturing process eliminates conventional limitations in ultrasound sensors including the large expense of high-resolution imaging – while also underpinning its non-destructive testing (NDT) products, which have names such as Kelpie and Belenus.

Novosound was founded in 2018, and milestones since include in 2019 securing a £3.3 million investment round led by private equity investment management firm Foresight Group in which Par Equity, Kelvin Capital, Gabriel Investments and Scottish Enterprise also participated.

"The investment gave us a runway, enabling us to focus on the business, protect our team, and really focus on sales,” says Dr Hughes, who holds a degree in physics from the University of Glasgow, a Doctorate in engineering from the University of Strathclyde, and has many years’ experience researching ultrasound for medical, dental, and industrial applications.

His accolades include in 2020 being named the Institute of Directors Scotland Director of the Year in the Start-Up category, while the firm, which is registered in Edinburgh and based in Newhouse in Lanarkshire, has also had to make room in the trophy cabinet, notching up award wins such as Scottish Edge and Converge Challenge.

In April 2021, its Knowledge Transfer Partnership with the University of the West of Scotland was awarded the highest possible grade by Innovate UK, the UK’s innovation agency, while that month it also secured its first major international award at the Material Performance Corrosion Innovation of the Year Awards.

This year, it secured a US trademark for its Kelpie product, and was granted a European patent that covers its core high-resolution sensor technology, while it also featured at investor event EIE London.

'Overall, I see scope for high-resolution ultrasonic technology to make a big impression,' says the academic-turned-entrepreneur. Picture: Stewart Attwood.

Additionally, it is eyeing further hires before the end of this year, including software engineer roles, after announcing a string of senior appointments including that of Simon Patterson as chief commercial officer. Dr Hughes, who took on the CEO role in 2020, said the hire came as the firm was starting to ramp up sales in the UK and other territories including Europe and North America.

Novosound was the first-ever spin-out company from the University of the West of Scotland. Can you characterise its progress over the last four years?

I sometimes refer to myself as a “recovering academic”, because while Novosound was formed in Scotland’s university sector, there’s a massive learning curve to moving into business and leaving some traits and behaviours behind. It’s now all about our commercial offering and getting it out in the world to produce real impact in people’s lives.

We’ve grown from six people to more than 30, manufactured and shipped our products around the world from our base in North Lanarkshire, and started to demonstrate how ultrasound can provide significant benefits in improving safety, efficiency, and insight across industrial, medical, and wearable markets.

Can you explain more about your product range?

At its core, Novosound is an ultrasound sensors company with a patented manufacturing method. We do sell our own branded probe offering, but our main play is an ultrasound sensing platform that enables our customers to achieve market edge, safety and efficiency by getting ultrasound data from previously untapped places.

We effectively become our client’s centre of excellence for ultrasound, developing solutions for them built upon our thin film, or printed, technology and providing them with the data and insight they require to solve their problems.

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We have worked with power-generation clients, allowing them to monitor corrosion and erosion of boilers during operation at temperatures exceeding 300 degrees Celsius, in medical imaging working with our dental customer on a high-resolution imaging solution that provides MRI resolution from ultrasound, and in wearables where we can continuously monitor new aspects of the human body using ultrasound.

Our own products, the Kelpie and the Belenus, are sold direct to industrial clients as an out-of-the-box inspection or monitoring solution for aviation or energy.

How did the products’ names come about?

The Kelpie started life as a flexible, or bendy, ultrasonic inspection tool, which we demo-ed around the world at our early trade shows. It became a bit of a legend due to its perceived benefits across aviation and industrial inspection. When branding it, I was wondering what else was a shape-shifting Scottish legend, and I thought of the kelpie, the mythical beast that changed from horse to human form. The name was very appropriate.

The Belenus is named after the Celtic God of Fire, similar to Beltane Fire Festival, and is our product for monitoring or protecting very hot pipeworks or boilers.

We’re continuing the tactic of using Scots or Celtic history in our branding because it helps to keep our Scottish heritage in the global marketplace. We’ve got some great ones in the pipeline!

How did the company fare throughout the pandemic?

As for many others, it was a challenging time. On the other side of the coin, it feels like we’ve seen about ten years of progress in the last couple of years. The technology in the space hadn’t really moved on much over the last few decades, and we’re now showing that we can move the dial and add significant value across a number of industry sectors.

It’s also notable that Scotland is staring to build an ecosystem in remote sensors, and we’re proud to be part of the growing Internet of Things scene here.

How did global sales fare last year?

We saw incredible growth at the tail end of 2021, which resulted in revenues growing five times from the previous year. This came from converting sales across a number of sectors including work from clients such as GE Aviation, BAE Systems, and energy firm Uniper. We also took our first steps into the healthcare sector with a medical device development contract.

The term ultrasound is most commonly associated with healthcare, can you elaborate on what you are doing with your platform there?

My passion has always been biomedical science and its applications, which is why I chose to do an EngD (similar to an engineering PhD) at the University of Strathclyde. It was there that I was first introduced to the physics of ultrasound and kick-started my career.

Overall, I see scope for high-resolution ultrasonic technology to make a big impression, first in dental where I’ve had the aim to remove the X-ray from the clinic, but then wider across other segments of the global 3D medical imaging market.

To make this a reality with Novosound, we turned our gaze towards medical imaging when we won a major contract in the digital health and medical imaging market in November 2021. This was a seven-figure research-and-development (R&D) and licensing deal with a venture-capital-backed Israeli company called dSound that will see us deliver 3D ultrasound technology to the dental imaging market.

Dental ultrasound imaging was a focus in my PhD, so getting into the healthcare market comes round full circle for us. In fact, one of my academic projects that inspired the founding of Novosound was a collaboration with [wearable health tech company] Current Health’s Chris McCann.

This was back in 2016 at the University of the West of Scotland, when we secured early-stage R&D grant funding to develop an ultrasound sensor for a medical device to monitor patient hydration levels.

You’ve previously said Current Health, which was acquired last year by US consumer electronics retailer Best Buy, is a standard for other tech companies to aim for in Scotland

It’s our ambition to be one of the leading tech companies to come out of the ecosystem here in Scotland. We’ve seen the success of peer companies like Current Health, and we have set our sights on achieving that kind of success. We plan to get there with a full-stack acoustic sensor offering that is now well-honed from sound wave to computer screen.

Earlier this year, you announced a project with a Nasdaq-listed tech group – can you give more details on this?

While we can’t go into many details on that one just now, it stems from a medical wearable tech R&D partnership with the University of Central Lancashire in 2018. That kind of validated the wearable sensor platform, so laid the ground for the project in the US. Our strategy was always around our ultrasound technology demonstrating wide ranges of uses in business-to-business and business-to-consumer markets.

In terms of outlook, to what extent is North America a big target market for Novosound?

Myself and some of the team have been out on various trips during the first half of 2022, and it’s great to be able to meet clients, prospective clients, and partners. I’ve really missed being able to do this and it’s so important.

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