Many diabetics find the process of injecting themselves distressing. Could a strange-looking new device be the answer?

eter Bailey wasn’t sure how people would react to his invention at the culmination of the Design Council’s Spark programme. He had won £15,000 from Spark in 2016 for his product to make self-injecting easier for people with diabetes, and had already spent the money on tools to start mass producing it.

During that process, however, he had discovered some fairly major issues. “I gave it the drop test on my hard bathroom floor and it sprung apart.” So he totally redesigned the product, eking out the last of the prize money to re-tool.

“I thought at first that it wouldn’t go down very well because inventors are often criticised for never finishing anything, always trying to improve it. To my happy surprise, everyone was impressed that I had the courage to throw away what I’d invested so much time and money in and start again.”

A type-1 diabetic for nearly 15 years, Bailey, 66, was trying to solve one of the big issues he faced when having to inject himself with insulin twice a day. “I suffered from needle phobia and I found the whole process to be unreliable. Sometimes it would hurt, sometimes you would get a different speed of absorption, and sometimes you would get bruising if you pushed too hard. I put up with this because, of course, my life depended on it.”

As a consultant engineer, he decided there must be a better way. Bailey’s very first attempt was, he says, “unduly complex”. It had 70 components, including small vibration motors. While testing it, the motors stopped working due to a minor wiring issue, but Bailey found the device still relieved the pain of injection.

He did some research and discovered the phenomenon of distraction analgesia, or pain relief. “It’s like rubbing an ache or scratching an itch,” he says. “You saturate the local nerves and then you literally don’t feel the needle go in.”

He tinkered with his design to produce the device that impressed the Spark judges, but it was still relatively complex, with 28 components. By contrast, the final design had just two.

Bailey says: “It’s relatively easy to engineer something when you use complexity to solve your problem. The elegance comes from finding a really simple way of doing it with few parts, low cost, high reliability and in a friendly way. Those are the design principles I try and focus on.”

The result is the Tickleflex, a strange-looking plastic device that plugs on to the end of insulin needles. Bailey says: “As you press it against the skin, 12 fingers create a pucker of subcutaneous tissue that makes the injection safe because the needle is more likely to go where you want it to go. The large pad area acts like a snow shoe so you can’t press too deep, so that significantly reduces the risk of bruising.” The device also hides the needle, which is helpful psychologically.

Bailey found a manufacturer via the Alibaba website. He says: “I then took the step of flying out to China to visit them. That made the difference. As soon as you can communicate face-to-face, you can develop a trusting relationship.”

He partnered with Bola Lafe, chief executive of Opus Innovations, for help in getting his product ready to sell. Bailey says: “It seemed to be an appropriate marriage. He was strong on networking and marketing and so on. I was the boffin coming down from my ivory tower.”

Lafe says one of the biggest challenges was to get the diabetes community to accept the product. So he conducted a customer evaluation with more than 100 people already using the device, looking at pain, anxiety and bruising. “That was the tipping point,” says Lafe. He is now concentrating on finding export markets for the Tickleflex.

The product has a patent in the UK and Europe and the company is applying for one in various other markets. The business, which is based in Crawley, sells the device through its website, and through distributors in a small number of countries.

It took two years from the initial concept to selling the Tickleflex. Bailey says he maintained faith in the product because of the feedback he got from other users. “The greatest joy is when we get testimonials from mums who are saved from the hours of hissy fits and anxiety trying to inject their kiddies.”

Almost 3.7 million people in the UK live with a diagnosis of type 1 or 2 diabetes. A recent potential medical breakthrough by Dutch scientists could eventually end the need for daily insulin injections for people with type 2 diabetes.

In the meantime, Bailey has turned his attention to another diabetes-related issue. Like many people with long-term diabetes he is losing some of the feeling in his toes, which can have serious complications and even result in amputations. Bailey says: “So that’s the next challenge I’ve set myself: to find some simple solution to reduce the risk of peripheral neuropathy and help to alleviate it.”

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