Interview by Marija Butkovic (@MarijaButkovic)
Collette Johnson is Head of Marketing at Plextek - company providing solutions for complex engineering challenges and delivering innovative solutions that meet the highest standards for robustness, reliability and ease of manufacture. Plextek’s key markets include Defence, Healthcare, Security, and Smart Sensors. Collette’s focus in Plextek is developing the medical and healthcare business and helping organisations with their strategic positioning relating to product development.
Prior to working at Plextek she worked at NHS Innovations with a lead role in bringing together industry and clinical organisations for product adoption and was also the programme leader for the national SBRI healthcare programme. Whilst in the role she focussed on the digital health space and developed a network bringing together, industry, clinical and academic stakeholders. She also worked in a strategic role in healthcare at Cambridge Consultants for world leading corporate organisations and highly innovative start-ups.
What was the idea behind Plextek?
Plextek is a product development consultancy. It was founded nearly thirty years ago now, however in the last twelve months it has been taken over by new management. We provide a consultancy service to other companies, specialising in product development and electronics expertise.
Then we have the sector that I run in the business, which is the Healthcare and Medical Market. We do work for other clients that any other standard consultancy would do, however we also develop some of our own products. Right now we are currently working on a product that can detect the early stages of tinnitus.
This is a really exciting piece of work, something we can see quickly becoming a real game changer in the industry. We also look at medical training systems, focusing on VR training systems in particular. We combine these to look at providing solutions to delivering specialist educational training systems that would otherwise be too expensive or difficult to conduct in the classroom.
When and how did it all start? Could you describe to us the journey considering Plextek has been in the market for 25+ years?
Plextek was started by 3 engineers getting together, Tim, Colin and Ian, wanting to set up their own business in RF technology. Over the years, the business grew, leading to a number of spin out companies and technologies that were developed in house.
A couple of those companies have branched out into the IoT space, moving away from the main consultancy service which has been at the heart of the business since day 1.
In the past few years, the consultancy service has seen the most change as we looked into taking a market based approach which currently focuses on four main market sectors. These are the Defence Sector, the Security Sector, the Sensors Sector, which is based around IoT mostly and finally, the Medical Sector.
We have now got a very innovative, entrepreneurial small business feel. So not only do we do highly innovative products for our clients and help them bring those products to market but we have also got a very clever group of people who work for us and can develop that technology further out from there. We are very much forming our own identification now and getting away from that group corporate image that we have had previously.
What was the biggest obstacle?
I think the biggest obstacle for me coming into the business was that it was a business that already knew its identity. The people I work with have been in the business for a long time and I came into Plextek as a new face with probably quite a different approach to business than some of my colleagues.
I was also trying to run a medical business market; this came with its own unique domain language and difficulties so it was quite challenging initially.
What made it easier was that the people are really nice, friendly and willing to give me the chance and the opportunity to prove that the medical business market could work.
What are the challenges of being an entrepreneur in the niche that you are in, How about being a female entrepreneur?
I think that the area I work in is a very conservative area. I think that what makes it more difficult is that it tends to be occupied and sort of dominated by middle-aged men. The challenge is trying to break away from that mind-set and push why it should be different and why you are different. As a female entrepreneur, it means that you have to fight a lot harder. You have to stand up for what you believe in and always be pushing your ideas forward. In my opinion, the most exciting part about being an entrepreneur in this area is that you don’t fit that sort of old school norm that you would normally see while networking.
I think the medical environment is also rapidly changing; a lot of fresh faces are moving into the industry and bringing their own innovative ideas. It is an area where we are also seeing a lot of user input leading to better digital design and feedback which we haven’t seen so prominently before in this sector.
And there is still a considerable amount of change to come which is another exciting prospect of what the future holds for female entrepreneurs in this sector.
What are your biggest achievements to date?
Building a successful medical business in Plextek and having a team that works with me. In a short space of time, we have accomplished a lot of difficult things successfully and that is not my achievement but my team’s achievement. Working together as a team so that we can all be successful means a huge amount to me.
On a personal note, I think that some of my achievements have been driving VR technology in the industry. VR has meant a lot to me for some time now and showcasing some of our work has helped me give that technology a voice. I now interact with people who believe medical VR could be the next realistic proposition in aiding patient treatment and improving healthcare.
What are your projects that you are currently working on in your company?
We are currently working on a tinnitus detection system that could be implemented into consumer products. This would give the consumer the capability of testing themselves for symptoms of early stage tinnitus.
Tinnitus is a condition that currently can’t be diagnosed until you have it. By that stage there is unfortunately minimal treatment options to reverse the damage done. We are currently investigating noise induced hearing in tinnitus and commercialising the technology for the everyday end user. Giving someone the opportunity and the technology, from a vigilant perspective, to detect small changes in the profile of their own hearing, we believe, could lead to better personal healthcare to avoid signs pointing to tinnitus.
What will be the key trends in the medical tech and the IoT industry in the next five years and where do you see it heading?
In the industry at the moment, we seemed to be stuck in this sort of loop of “me too” products, especially in wearable tech. I think this will soon change and we will start to see more niche products in more niche form factors. We are also going to see technology keep simpler measurements and give more informed data and decision making. I predict that there will be a big move in the smart home in the next 5 years. The smart home will soon become quite an important evolution in the medical sector and will force a drive in other sectors as a result.
I believe we are also going to see a lot of progression in data exploitation as well, especially in crowd and group data, giving us further insight in the behaviours and characteristics of a targeted population.
Wearable technology and their form factor will become a little bit more accessible as well. This will be an important development because what you tend to find is that if you want people to fully embrace it then the technology will have to be made easier and simpler for them to adapt to. We might see more adhesive wearables for example, or more embedded into looser clothing. At the moment when it is in clothing it has to be quite tight to you so that is something we will soon see change as well.
Why is #WomenInTech movement important to you?
I think that it is important because I believe women bring a completely different aspect to tech development. Everybody who has come into the technology industry has brought their own different skills and background experience.
Having teams of mixed ages, mixed sex, mixed cultural backgrounds is so important and driving woman into the sector will also drive big change in the way we develop technology.
What we need to keep our eye on, however, is that while it is really important to drive women in tech, we have also got to make it feel inclusive. The movement can’t become a segregation process or create disparities between people.
Saying that, I fully support anything to get more women into the technology space to balance things out and to give a different perspective to development and any effort to do accomplish this is all a positive thing.
What is the most important piece of advice that you can give to all female founders and entrepreneurs out there?
Be yourself, don’t be what you think people want you to be to fit into a pre-existing mould.
If you have got an idea and you know what you want to do then you must believe in that and be prepared to fight for that to drive it forward.
It will be really tough and at times it will be frustrating and you will feel very aggravated. You may even feel like walking out and heading towards the door but if you believe in what you do and you are doing the work that you are passionate about then you have just got crack on and get on with it.
Who are your three inspirational women in wearable tech?
It is hard for me to say but I think that for me, Anna Young from Makertech is really inspirational. She is just really good and she has had an idea and just driven with it and she is really inspirational I think to young women and tech entrepreneurs out there. She is just very driven and she has achieved a lot and she makes technology accessible to all and I really like her.