Former Brooke Weston student Alex Lyness returned to Brooke Weston to talk to students about his career in product design, which has led to him designing cutting edge medical devices to deliver stem cell treatments directly into the human body.
He left Brooke Weston in 2004 after achieving A Levels in business studies, DT and maths. After studying for his first degree in product design engineering at the University of Loughborough he completed his PhD part-time while working for a biotech company in Oxford. He has since been awarded an Enterprise Fellowship at Loughborough and, in addition to his own research and development, he now oversees the work of over 300 post-graduate students, teaching them about entrepreneurship and industry collaborations.
He got involved in developing medical devices after going on a work placement at the age of 16 when he saw the inner workings of a dry powder inhaler. Since then Alex’s career has encompassed the design and development of three separate medical devices, the latest of which will be used on patients next year.
He spoke to students about developments in product design, the careers that engineering and design degrees can lead to including in defence, mobile technology and manufacturing industries. He said: ‘They are completely different disciplines but they all follow the same process of looking at something, coming up with some suggestions of how to improve it, understanding which bits work and which bits don’t and trying to make the process better.’
Dr Lyness said: ‘I got into the medical side of design due to work experience I did while at Brooke Weston. I saw the inside of my first medical device at 16 and now, aged 29, I am a co-inventor on a cell injection device that has taken about last two and a half years to develop. Cell therapies are treatments that are made out of living cells. They are typically injected and you have to keep the cells alive throughout the process. I have also worked on a needle-free drug delivery device, getting drugs through the skin without needles in as painless a way as possible is quite a challenge!’
One of the highlights of his career so far has been meeting world-renowned medical engineer Professor Bob Langer at MIT. He said: ‘The key thing I stress when I talk at schools and across the country was that I went to a state school, then on to Loughborough and am now getting invites to MIT and Harvard. Professor Langer is a rock star within our lifetime. He has won both the international awards that are the equivalent of the Nobel prize for engineering. He has dozens of honorary doctorates from universities worldwide and medical innovations stemming from his work have improved the lives of an estimated two billion people. He is the most cited engineer of all time and he has 1,000 patents so it is quite nice to be a lad who went to school at Brooke Weston to have half an hour of his time in a very busy schedule.
‘I moved back to Loughborough because of the opportunities that there were with regenerative medicine. I was awarded an Enterprise Fellowship by the university to develop medical devices capable of delivering stem cells. I teach post-graduates about enterprise, entrepreneurship and encourage them to collaborate with industry. Regenerative medicine is cutting edge and it may be 10 to 15 years until those treatments become readily available in the UK. I’ve just had a great trip to Aalto University in Finland and after seeing the work they do there with UNICEF I’ve started thinking about simpler, cost-effective medical devices that can improve many more lives in countries that have to deal with much tougher surroundings and with less resources.’
Dr Lyness finished his talk to students with advice about their future studies and careers: ‘Don’t be worried about getting straight As in order to start a university career, attend plenty of university open days to get as much information as possible to pick the right university and course for you. Talk to people who have gone into that field and figure out what degree to do. I stress the importance of a sandwich year. I got a lot out of that year as working with a company at that stage was critical to what I did and did not do next, it also allowed me to solve real world problems. Find a good mentor. Whatever things you pick in university and beyond doesn’t mean that you cannot move around. I did not expect when I was playing with Lego as a child to be working with medical devices when I was 16 and now stem cells. You will get some luck along the way but the key thing is putting the hard work in for each step. If you like solving things or improving things engineering is a great discipline and it is also beneficial for those you can help out with your improvements or inventions. Engineers make things better together.’