Written by Safwaan Patel + Edited by Isaac Haq

“Our eyes only see the big dimensions, but beyond those are others that escape detection, because they are so small.”

Brian Greene


Cancer is one of the leading causes of death for people in the developed world.
Furthermore, it’s a huge economic burden, with a cost $12.1bn on treatment and a loss of $36.1bn/year worth of productivity a year.
1 in 3 people will get a diagnosis of cancer in their lifetime, and, despite spending billions on research, we are yet to find a ‘magic bullet’ that can stop cancer deaths.

There is some hope. If detected at the earliest stage almost 70% of lung cancer patients will live for a year, compared to a late diagnosis which gives a 14 % survival rate over the same time period. We must shift our focus, from the treatment of cancer to prevention and early diagnosis.

Owlstone Medical was established in March 2016, as a spin-off of the parent company Owlstone, to apply their existing chemical sensing technology (previously used for military and security applications) to a new medical agenda.



The current method for early cancer detection is screening. In the UK there are only 3 regular screening programmes for cancers: Bowel (mailed stool samples), Cervical (smear tests by GPs) and Breast cancer (x-ray mammography).

Because of technological limitations, it isn’t cost-effective to screen for all cancers; screens can be uncomfortable, time-consuming, and incorrect results can lead to more tests and treatment unnecessarily. These are all problems Owlstone hopes to overcome with their Breath Biopsy platform.

We use breathalysers to measure blood alcohol levels, but Owlstone Medical’s want to take this technology much further than that. Their aim is to create a ‘breathalyser for disease’ and make diagnoses of life-threatening illnesses, even those as complex as cancer, as simple as blowing into a tube and waiting a few seconds for the results.



Most cancer’s are diagnosed when a patient presents with symptoms. The problem with this is that symptoms often occur late in a cancer’s progress. Owlstone Medical’s focus lies in using Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) found in the breath, which give us a view of the metabolic processes going on in the body. Diseases alter these processes and leave a signature of VOCs in the breath, providing a ‘fingerprint’ of the disease which has previously been left undetected.
Cancers have traditionally been categorised based on the mutations (DNA changes) they have acquired, and Owlstone are taking a completely different view of the cancer process.

Science Geeks only:

Owlstone Medical have developed an Ultra-High Field Asymmetric Waveform Ion Mobility Spectrometry (or FAIMS for short) device. It’s small enough to fit on a penny and can detect these VOCs at concentrations as small as 1 part per billion. Simply, the VOC gas ions are passed through an electric field, allowing the spectrometer to weigh the molecule and analyse what they are. Using their FAIMS technology, Owlstone’s mission is to save 100,000 lives and $1.5Bn in healthcare costs by using their non-invasive method to screen for cancers.

See this video for more details:




Owlstone is the only company working with this innovative technology, but their main competition in the scientific world comes from ‘commercial liquid biopsy.’ This technique involves detecting small amounts of circulating tumour DNA (ctDNA) in the blood and has seen the launch of a number of notable start-ups, including ‘Grail,’ who have received over $900m of financial backing from Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos among others.
The market research firm RNCOS forecasts the liquid biopsy market to reach $1bn by 2020 and $5.96bn by 2030. There is evidently a large market emerging for diagnosing cancers early, but also a number of established competitors.

The good news for Owlstone is that although Grail’s technology might prove to be more cost-effective for cancer diagnosis, their technology has a wide number of applications. They are currently working with GSK to determine whether the new drug ‘Danirixin,’ a treatment for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, is useful for different patients. The possibilities are endless!



Billy Boyle, the co-founder and CEO of Owlstone Medical, designed and developed the technology and established Owlstone in 2004 with David-Ruiz Alonso after completing a masters in Engineering at Cambridge University.

The medical spin-off hired 3 experienced members to their management team in 2016:

  • Chris Hodkinson as VP of Business Development, with a wealth of experience as co-founder, director and COO of cancer detection company Abcodia Ltd and another 15 years working with pharmaceutical and biotech companies.
  • Dr Marc Van der Schee (MD, PhD) as a lead clinical researcher with 10 years of experience in the field of volatile biomarker research.
  • Hamilton Scanlon as VP of manufacturing with over 30 years experience of taking products through their development and into full-scale production.

The team consists of the leading experts in FAIMS technology, and with the added commercial acumen of investors AVIVA, they have the industry nouse required to make Owlstone a success.



In total, the business has received £19.3M of investment to date since the spin-out in 2016 including from Aviva Ventures, and research partnerships with the NHS and Cancer Research UK.
Whilst this number pales in comparison to Grain, it provides them with a solid platform to continue to commercialise their Breath Biopsy services and provide these services to existing pharmaceutical and biotech companies. Instead of trying to produce an all-in-one product that can detect any cancer and analyse any disease fingerprint, they have cleverly approached the medical market as a service provider rather than a standalone product, allowing them to provide diverse analytical software and specialise in the field of analysing VOCs for a variety of purposes.
The company will need more money to finance further growth and extend their device capabilities in the cash-hungry world of MedTech.



  1. Opportunity: The established biopsy method of cancer diagnosis is old fashioned and relies largely on outdated imaging and histological analysis. There is a gap in the market for a non-invasive method of achieving the same end.
  2. Partnerships: By partnering with large-scale existing companies such as GSK, 4D pharma and CRUK and providing them with both the VOC analysis service using their products as part of large-scale trials, they avoid the need to create costly distribution network at this stage.
  3. Technology: The FAIMS technology has marked advantages over previous methods of VOC analysis, which requires far more costly equipment.
  4. Ease of use: Sampling breath is far simpler than taking blood and urine samples used in liquid biopsy technology. This may pave the road to home diagnostics!
  5. Versatility: Whilst some biomarkers are very specific to single diseases, VOC analysis can be adapted to a growing variety of diseases by using the same analytical hardware and adapting the software.
  6. Incorporation: History has shown that diagnostic devices are far more readily incorporated into the standard UK clinical practice than other medical products.


  1. Competition: Whilst the market and focus on early cancer diagnosis is growing, so is the interest from other companies, such as the aforementioned Grail with their liquid biopsy technology.
  2. Early days: A large majority of the company’s work is using their FAIMS technology to collaborate in studies into the efficacy of VOC analysis in augmenting diagnosis and treatment. It is still a distant dream for analysing VOC fingerprints in the breath to be a stand-alone diagnostic process.



Concept: ★★★★★

Company finances: ★★★

Competitive advantage: ★★★

Final investor rating: ★★★★


Further Reading:


VOC’s in diagnostics

Owlstone medical publications

Owlstone in the news


1) This blog has been created using public information about OWLSTONE MEDICAL.
2) This is an opinion piece intended only for educational purposes, not as professional investment advice.
3) I can declare no conflicts of interest in the publication of this article.

About the writer:
My name is Safwaan Patel. I am currently a 4th-year Clinical medicine student at The University of Cambridge, having gained an intercalated BA in Neuroscience. I am currently exploring my interest in start-ups and in particular the MedTech sector. My research interests include Clinical quality improvement. In my spare time, I enjoy regularly going to the gym, playing cricket and reading.

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