Sometimes it can be our family that helps bring out the entrepreneur in us – as Richard Paxman tells Mike Hughes.
Prefer to listen than read? We've made this story available as an audio podcast.
Cancer is such a cruel disease. Its seemingly arbitrary hunt for victims causes devastation and the pain it leaves behind can last a lifetime. You can still see the pain – and anger – in Richard Paxman’s eyes when he talks about losing his mum and the effect it had then and still has now. This is a personal war – and he seems to be winning.
Paxman Scalp Cooling on Penistone Road in Huddersfield makes fitted skull caps that cool the scalp, helping prevent chemotherapy-induced alopecia – hair loss that is often the most unwanted sign that someone is in the grip of cancer.
The scalp temperature is reduced to about 18C, which reduces the amount of blood flow and therefore chemotherapy that gets to the hair follicles – a huge step forward from the tourniquets and ice packs being used a few decades ago.
“In the early 1990s my mum as a young woman in her early thirties was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer which was spreading to her lymph nodes,” Richard tells me in the modern offices the company shares with the family’s other business Brewfitt which makes drink dispensing systems.
“She had beautiful curly hair, so was very interested when someone suggested she tried scalp cooling during her treatment. But a few weeks into the treatment her hair began to fall out. She had four young kids at that stage and while we knew she was ill, she looked alright.
“As soon as she lost her hair she started to look unwell. It was a flag to everyone, including her own children. My dad Glen saw the devastation it caused and started to look at the device. Our family background is in refrigeration, so we knew how to make liquids cold and have done for 50 years.
So, with his engineering background, he started developing a prototype with his brother Neil, who was the refrigeration expert.
“The first one came out in 1997, but there was some naivety on our part with the move from our industry into the medical industry – there are a lot more rigorous tests and every year it gets more and more difficult.
“But we did it and Huddersfield University agreed to try the machine and the interest grew.”
But the initial uptake was not as impressive as the family had hoped for. The lack of enough clinical data delayed any adoption by the NHS and there was a lot of negativity based on how poorly the previous devices had performed. But there were also fears that stopping chemotherapy getting to the hair follicles could mean increasing the risk that it might not get to the parts of the body where it was needed.
But the family – six of them work in the business - was on a very personal mission to make sure that this treatment was given every chance to change patients’ lives and was so much more than just a vanity issue.
That personal passion was tested in the cruellest way when, despite being cancer free for five years, Sue Paxman died when the disease returned in her bones. “It is still raw, and shows why this means so much more than just selling a medical device. It is her legacy,” says Richard. “There is a belief in the product instilled in all 20 staff that took us past our personal issues and helped us realise we could make a difference to other patients.
“Health care has progressed since those days and in the last five or ten years there has been a big shift in the strategy for treating cancer patients, taking it further than just curing or killing the cancer into a more holistic and integrated approach.”
Richard has been embedded in the business since 2009. After studying management science at Manchester he didn’t plan on entering the family business. Travelling was more on his mind, but that needed paying for, so Penistone Road seemed a logical short-term solution.
But the money was slow in building and by then there was progress into a managerial role at the company and when an uncle moved to another job, Richard made his move for a senior role within the scalp-cooling business.
“I believe I would always have done something innovative, inside or outside the family businesses,” he says. “I know I have had amazing opportunities after being given a job and making the most of it.
“Of course it helps being Glen’s lad, but we have a Swedish board now after a VC investment in 2000, and I still had to go to them and tell them this is what I wanted.
“I think they would agree that they gave it to me because I could do the job. I had a real appetite for making something different and big.”
That decision has been vindicated many times over, with exports now making up 60 per cent of the business, which has a £2million turnover and is in 85 per cent of NHS hospitals and is regarded as the market leader worldwide. There are around 2,500 Paxman units in use by adults around the world, working through 30 distributors.
One of the fastest-growing parts of the business – from zero to £250,000 in less than three years - is Paxman Home Healthcare which has teamed up with Healthcare at Home and Bupa Home healthcare to offer the cooling system in patients’ own houses.
“One of the biggest turning points for Paxman was a huge amount of support from a Dutch research group which provided a lot of the crucial clinical data we needed. Also, there is a Southern-based breast cancer charity called Walk the Walk, which supports hospitals purchasing scalp-cooling equipment. “They all understand the benefit psychologically of keeping your hair, and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that this has a positive impact on your chances of fighting the disease.
As the business has grown and become more profitable, we have been able to invest and reinvest in our R&D work, from product development which improves the machine and the cap to some wonderful programmes with Huddersfield University looking at the mechanism and biology of scalp-cooling.
“We understand that vasoconstriction - the narrowing of the blood vessels - plays an important role in how scalp-cooling works, and that cooling slows down the metabolic rate, but there are a lot of other factors that cooling could have an effect on, so we need to get to the bottom of the science.”
The spread of the business is remarkable - from an impassioned need to help a mother regain her dignity to a determination to see the work through and now to cell-by-cell research that may yet rewrite the medical textbooks.
When BQ Yorkshire recently talked to Prof John Fisher at the University of Leeds, he enthusiastically backed the personalisation of medicine. Not just off-the-shelf tablets and devices, but dna-specific treatments. This will also be a big part of the future for Paxman. The simple starting point is that we all have differently-shaped heads. So each cap could be made as a millimetre-perfect fit for each patient ensuring perfect delivery.
“This is key to any medicine at the moment,” agrees Richard. “We have invested a lot of money into our newest cap, which moulds very well to the head but is still not perfectly personalised.
“We have a multi-disciplinary working group looking at it now and I can see it being a big contributor to the business as it improves the efficacy. And we have just submitted a research proposal to the National Institute for Health Research to look at a large population in the UK to understand more about the individual epidemiology of patients and see what links there are.”
Acceptance and growth in Japan and America are next of Richard’s list of targets, which means taking on the most demanding healthy regulations in the world. “It has been very keenly embraced by the people I have been working with there, but both have the strictest approval processes. We are investing more than £2m into the US market and have already spent a lot there, which is big commitment, but it could be amazing.
“We have set up an ongoing clinical study at six sites in the US to ensure we get clearance from the Food and Drug Administration. We are on track and set for a third quarter clearance which will transform the business and help us roll out more products in the first two years than we have done in 15 years here, with revenues in excess of £10m.
“But the most satisfying thing is that I am getting to do all this with my family. I am getting to travel and work with some of the key business people in the world, but as a representative of the family, which is a much more fulfilling role.
“There is my dad Glen, older brother Curtis, older sister Claire, me and my twin brother James all working where our key skills are. We are not all the boss, but all respect one another.
“We all sit on the board of Brewfitt, and then dad and I sit on the board of Paxman where we work with Claire.”
The other name on that family rollcall is, of course, mum Sue - the inspiration in so many ways for what Richard is creating. One side of that inspiration the family will wish had never happened, but how proud she will be to see how her son and his dad and siblings are taking the lessons they learned from her around the world.