Edinburgh technology entrepreneur builds global business by smartphone

Author: Novarum Admin


IN this week’s SME Focus we hear from an entrepreneur who found the smartphone revolution created fantastic opportunities for the technology business he runs.


Dr Neil Polwart.



What is your business called?

Novarum DX.

Where is it based?


What does it produce, what services does it offer?

We facilitate the reading and sharing of low cost disposable diagnostic test results using nothing more than the phone in your pocket. Our smartphone readers allow people, even in remote locations, to instantly and accurately read a point of care test and then share that result with their doctor, nurse, family member or even just for their own records. This sort of technology itself promised a revolution in healthcare about 20 years ago, with the introduction of the home pregnancy test – but often the interpretation of these tests has been too complicated to use away from laboratory expertise. With the Novarum reader, using such tests outside of the lab is no longer impossible. There are hundreds of different diagnostic tests on the market and Novarum is unlocking their potential.

We’ve developed readers for tests linked to high-risk global threats such as HIV/AIDS and Influenza, but we’ve also worked with less publically recognised tests such as legionella in water.

Who does it sell to?

Our normal customer would be a manufacturer of tests within the human diagnostics or veterinary diagnostics markets. These manufacturers tend to offer our app as a differentiator when promoting and selling their tests to customers. Increasingly, we are also being approached by customers outside of our traditional markets who are looking for technical expertise in making smartphones work with their hardware.

What is its turnover?

We recently broke through £1 million of total revenue since our first sale in 2012.

How many employees?


When was it formed?


Why did you take the plunge?

In a previous life, and having completed my PhD, I founded an environmental testing company named Hydrosense, which specialized in the water-testing marketplace. I am very happy to say that they are now one of our most valued customers. Through this venture it became apparent to me that there was a need for a better way to read and store test results, other than doing it manually, which was prone to human error. At that time, mobile phones (or PDA’s as they were then known) were not of the standard they are today, and so my grand idea was put on hold.

Progressing from that venture, I joined another Scottish company called Albagaia, as their chief operating officer, when it acquired Hydrosense’s technology. After three years there I span out Novarum as a separate venture to realize the smartphone reader potential. It was the birth of the Smartphone, and the standardised development interfaces enforced by Android and Apple, which made capturing results using the camera functionality of these phones much more viable, and so the idea was revisited and Novarum DX was born.

How did you raise the start-up funding?

Through my experience I had contacts with a leading contract rapid test manufacturer and developer, BBI Solutions, and they saw the potential this application offered and brought not only finance, but access to the market. We continue our close relationship, and they’ve brought relationships with some significant blue chip customers.

What was your biggest break?

The first few customers. Those initial apps provided a test bed for the technology as well as allowing us to offer an increasing range of ancillary services. Those early customers remain some of our most important clients today.

What was your worst moment?

Thankfully there has yet to be one major meltdown moment, which I am grateful for, however no start-up is without its war wounds and I have certainly got a few of those. Losing any contract that you thought was going to bring significant revenue is always a tough blow, but you grow and learn as you progress and in retrospect each ‘no thanks’ gives you the learning curve you need to mould your brand and tweak your message so that next time the answer is ‘yes’.

What do you most enjoy about running the business?

Seeing my initial idea grow and our products help people is definitely a key pleasure in running Novarum DX; having the fruits of our labours on the App Stores is very satisfying. I get to work with some extremely smart and creative people who are bringing our ideas to life, which is wonderful.

What do you least enjoy?

Waiting! I’m impatient so whether it’s waiting for feedback from customers or to see the latest outputs from our development team, I want to see it now. The mobile development world moves so quickly that there is no time to stand still.

What is your biggest bugbear?

Regulatory approval and the requirements that entails makes app development in the medical space comparatively slow. This also tends to make diagnostic companies and their customers relatively conservative. There are opportunities to embrace new technology, for example in the battle against Ebola, and the regulated landscape risks delaying those solutions. We are actively supporting customers to pull together US FDA Clearance Applications this year, and our contact with the regulators is encouraging. Often the perception of the regulatory challenge is worse for our customers than the reality.

What are your ambitions for the firm?

I’d like to see Novarum DX grow steadily over the next few years as we penetrate new markets and expand our product range. We’re already working on some exciting new projects involving Bluetooth and intelligent imaging outside of the diagnostic test space, so I’d like to see our reputation as leaders in ‘intelligent imaging’ develop. There is a lot of hype around wearables and the “internet of things” but Novarum DX is building expertise that can help companies turn them into value.

What are your five top priorities?

To ensure we always provide the highest quality of application possible for our customers. Our apps should be simple to use, intuitive, meaningful and customer-centric; to remain at the forefront of the Mobile Health (mHealth) market; growing our business in the veterinary, defence and food testing space is definitely a priority for the near future, as is growing our internal capabilities beyond disposable test kits. In 2015, a main focus for my commercial team is to spread the word of our capabilities through targeted marketing efforts.

What could the Westminster and/or Scottish governments do that would help?

We’ve found that Scottish and UK governments are already helping many SMEs through grant funding and competitions. These are great ways for small companies to work independently and in collaboration, to undertake projects that they couldn’t normally afford to invest in. More of this sort of funding would always be helpful. For Novarum DX, government support in mHealth solutions within the NHS would be a great benefit to us – penetrating the NHS with new technology is no mean feat, especially for an SME.

What was the most valuable lesson that you learned?

I’ve learned that I can’t do everything by myself, so building a strong team round about me that I can depend on and who think independently is crucial in creating a happy and productive work place. I’ve also learned that managing a company requires thick skin and determination.

How do you relax?

Exploring Scotland’s West Coast in small boats. Finding the time to do that, manage a growing business and run around after a family is not always possible. We are blessed with some spectacular settings in Scotland and I am often to be found on a bike enjoying those.