Ten years ago, on the 12th August 2008, Alex Berry, the founder of Sutrue Ltd, was laid up at home with a broken ankle, when the initial idea of developing an automated suturing device first came to him. It was triggered when he watched a documentary called ‘Super Doctors’ which gave Berry some insight into the problems involved in the process of robotic suturing. Having seen how painstaking the process was, he decided that there must be an easier way to produce a medical stitch. He was keen to keep his brain active whilst his ankle recovered, so on a visit to see his GP, he carried out his first bit of market research into his idea. He asked his GP whether he thought the idea of an automated suturing device was a potentially viable one, and, to his delight, his GP said he thought it was worth a shot. With some basic CAD knowledge behind him and a spark of an idea, Berry set about finding a solution. He soon became obsessed with following the idea to fruition.
Little did Berry know that it would take him ten years to create a working robotic automated suturing prototype and six years to create the handheld device, with many personal and professional highs and lows along the way. To finance the idea in the early days, he sold all his personal assets; his flat, his car and his furniture. At one point in 2011, he lived in a tent for six months, as he couldn’t afford to rent a flat. He later picked up some consulting work which helped him to reintroduce some semblance of ‘normality’ back into his life and this also gave him some funds to continue inventing the device.
In 2012, Berry moved from Jersey to the UK to live with family members and officially set up Sutrue as a company. In the following year momentum for the project really began to gather as he started to meet pivotal thought leaders who would go on to play key roles in the development of the Sutrue device. Firstly, he met Chris Sutcliffe, Professor of Engineering at Liverpool University, whose expertise in engineering and 3D printing enabled Alex to realise the spring plate which is at the heart of the Sutrue device.
Next, Berry met Mr Richard Trimlett (Cardio-thoracic Surgeon and Head of Mechanical Support at the Royal Brompton Hospital). He recalls being on a day trip to the Science Museum in London when he was passing the Royal Brompton Hospital. He was inspired to pop in and ask for the help of a medical expert. He initially asked a porter, which lead to him being put in touch with Mr Richard Trimlett. In Trimlett, Berry found an excellent product guide and between them, over the years, they coined their own working process entitled “Multi-typing”. This involves utilising ‘Rapid Prototyping’ to produce numerous design solutions, then printing, testing, tweaking and reprinting, until eventually producing a product that successfully works and provides the best solution to the end user. This process significantly reduced the cost of the creation of the Sutrue suturing device, probably by a factor of 50 and it also shaved years off the time it would have otherwise taken. It took the creation and subsequent testing of 38 prototypes for Berry and Trimlett to reach the final working prototype. Involving a highly skilled surgeon (and end user) such as Trimlett was a crucial step in the success of the device.
As with any start up, fund raising can be a real challenge. Berry vividly recalls the ‘make or break’ nature of the final day of crowd funding in November 2014. The aim to was to raise £30k to proceed with the patent application for the device, and had this not quite been achieved, then all the funds would be lost. They managed to accomplish it and went onto to submit a patent via another pivotal figure, Doctor Tom Burt, Chartered UK and European Patent Attorney at Abel & Imray.
The subsequent year, 2015, Sutrue were fortunate enough to develop more mutually beneficial relationships, this time with Concept Laser (now GE Additive) whose cutting edge 3D printers have the capability to print the highly detailed metal parts the Sutrue device required. This was another pivotal relationship in the story of the device development and one which Berry was extremely grateful to have developed, as without it, the company would have needed to raise significantly more funds to pay for parts.
In 2016, Sutrue managed to secure enough funding to be able to pay Berry sufficiently to afford to rent somewhere of his own again, and of course to continue the device development further. As funding and product development progressed in leaps and bounds for Sutrue, so too did publicity. Indeed, over the years, Berry’s innovative story has received significant attention. They’ve been covered on BBC Click by Lara Lewington. They have been featured by countless 3D printing and medical press and have been asked to speak at a range of conferences including TCT. One of the highlights has been the receipt of a highly commended certificate at the 2017 TCT Awards.
This year, as Sutrue looks to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of the initial idea, momentum continues to grow. Sutrue has increased its management team, moved into an office near Colchester, were invited to attend a GE Additive thought leadership event in New York, have continued to develop beneficial relationships with prestigious companies such as The Design Museum in London (where the Sutrue handheld device is currently exhibited). Berry and his team are also really excited to have been invited to San Franscico to give a thought leadership talk in Silicon Valley in November!
The next big steps for Sutrue is to redesign the device for manufacturing and put it through the regulation and testing process. It’s been ten years of ups and downs, filled with much uncertainty particularly in the first five years in which Berry didn’t even know for sure that the device would work. He has maintained the progression of the device through having a healthy dose of insanity, extreme resourcefulness, and an inquiring and problem-solving mind. He’s gone against many societal norms to have created two working prototypes of his automated suturing device – the robotic and the handheld, but as the route to market becomes closer and closer, he’s glad to have fought against the odds to see the project through to completion.