Meet the MD: Neil Polwart, Novarum DX

Meet the MD: Neil Polwart, Novarum DX

Novarum DX is pioneering software to help diagnose illnesses away from laboratories. Founder Dr Neil Polwart takes us through his entrepreneurial experience, and striking a work-life balance.

What is it the company does?

Novarum develops software tools that allow users to read and share the results of diagnostic tests using nothing more than the phone in your pocket. It’s a world-leading technology that can be used by anyone, to connect with medical professionals, field-workers and family members or even just to store personal records.

The introduction of the home pregnancy test promised a revolution in healthcare about 20 years ago-but these tests have often proved to be too complicated to use away from laboratory expertise. Novarum readers have pioneered the way for such tests to be used outside a lab and this technology is unlocking the potential of a mobile diagnostic revolution.

Novarum’s mobile reader solution can be used in all sorts of environments. These include in-field testing stations in remote locations where people are being tested for high-risk diseases like HIV/ AIDS and Influenza. The technology is also being used by people with chronic conditions like Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) - which requires regular testing. They can now perform these tests in the comfort of their own homes, rather than having to undertake frequent hospital visits - saving the patient time and alleviating the strain on health care institutions like the NHS.

Describe your role in no more than 100 words

I have an overarching responsibility for everything we do in the mHealth area, a key part of my job is ensuring that customers obtain the value they hope to achieve from their app. One of the ways that I do this is by working closely with clients to help define their business strategy and to look at how Novarum’s technology can be used to disrupt their marketplace and add value to their offering.

For many healthcare organisations, mobile technology provides an opportunity to re-model patient care. The benefits of adopting a mobile strategy vary depending on the client and it’s my job to provide the expertise and guidance on how our software can transform their business’ capabilities.

Give us a brief timeline of your career so far – where did you start, how did you move on?

My journey started after I completed my PhD in Chemistry. I then founded an environmental testing company called Hydrosense, which specialised in the water-testing market. I’m pleased to be able to say that they are now one of Novarum’s most valued customers.

I’ve always had entrepreneurial traits and during this time, it became apparent to me that there was a need in the marketplace for a more efficient way to read and store test results. However, mobile phones were not at the standard they are today and so this idea was put on hold.

Following that venture, a Scottish company called Albagaia acquired Hydrosense’s technology and I took up the role as their chief operating officer.

After three years, mobile technology had progressed exponentially and the potential of a smartphone reader to capture results using the device’s camera became a reality. This encouraged me to revisit the concept of mobile test readers and Novarum DX was born.

What do you believe makes a great leader?

I believe that leadership is about having real vision and being able to clearly articulate this to the rest of the team. In my experience, it really motivates and inspires staff when they know that everyone is working towards a common goal and understand that they are playing a key role in the wider company’s journey.

It’s also important to be passionate about what you do and to ensure that positive mind set spreads across your team. We spend such a large part our lives working, so it’s really important to me that everyone working at Novarum enjoys what they do.

Communication is also key - there should be an open dialogue between leadership and the team to ensure that everyone’s opinions are considered and valued. I think the key to being a great leader is growing and developing a great team and I am very fortunate to work with a fantastic group of individuals at Novarum DX.

What has been your biggest challenge in your current position?

One of the biggest challenges is managing relationships. It’s crucial that everyone is looked after and opinions are considered. The company has shareholders, partners, managers, staff and customers and I think it’s crucial to keep all of those teams aware of the part they play towards the business’ success.  

How do you alleviate the stress that comes with your job?

Juggling a family alongside a growing business means that I don’t find much spare time to unwind. However, one of my favourite pastimes is exploring the stunning landscapes of Scotland’s West Coast either in small boats or on my bike.  If I’m not out exploring then I might be found rustling something up in the kitchen.

When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?

From the earliest time that I can remember, I wanted to be a Meteorologist. I like to think that I’m still doing a little bit of that in my current job, as it’s all about forecasting and looking ahead to the future.

Any pet hates in the workplace? What do you do about them?

I have a very ‘can-do’ outlook and I don’t like to be overcome by any challenge, so my biggest pet hate has to be when someone says that something can’t be done. When I’m told that something is not possible, I like to find a way of proving that it can be. Whether that’s by finding a solution myself or teaming up with people who have a similarly positive mind set.

Where do you see the company in five years’ time?

I would like to see Novarum become the leader in providing mobile solutions for diagnostic test companies. Mobile Health will very much become the norm in many aspects of the industry and every diagnostics company will be looking to incorporate mobile capability as part of their offering- so Novarum DX should be the obvious choice.

I also hope to continue to strengthen our team with new additions who will have the expertise and insight to drive the company forward.

Novarum’s technology has helped to improve quality of life around the world, whether that’s making the testing process for an individual in a rural village in Africa easier, or helping someone suffering from a chronic illness here in the UK to manage their condition more easily. I envision that in five years’ time, technological advances will mean we’ll be able to create an even bigger positive impact.

What advice would you give to an aspiring business leader?

Although it’s not the advice that many other software start-up companies would give, I’d say that it’s important to have a credible business model. I disagree with the suggestion that you build-up users, and then worry about how you will generate income later.

That model can work in areas of the U.S. where there is a real appetite for risk, such as Silicon Valley. However, I’ve found that in the UK you have to be able to prove that you have a credible model that can generate a sustainable revenue - if you want to be taken seriously, and ultimately, succeed. The proof you have a viable offering is when someone is willing to pay for it.

What do you wish someone had told you when you started out?

Not to assume that everyone else has already thought of the most obvious solution. It’s probably a mistake that I am still guilty of making but it makes problem-solving much easier knowing that all of the obvious solutions have already been eliminated. What may be obvious to you may not always be obvious to someone else, so it’s important to communicate the simplest solutions as early as possible.