A business with heart

HeartSine’s innovative technology is saving lives from football fields to jet liners. Symon Ross, editor of Ulster Business, met CEO Declan O’Mahoney to find out more about its plans for new products and future growth.

Northern Ireland has a long history of innovation when it comes to treating cardiac arrest.

The process emergency departments use to treat cardiac arrest is known as ‘The Belfast Protocol’ because the world’s first out-of-hospital defibrillator was created here in the 1960s.

First conceived by Professor Frank Pantridge, it was Professor John Anderson who led the biomedical engineering research into the development of the mobile defibrillator. Prof Anderson, who died last year, would go on to found HeartSine Technologies in 1997 with the aim of making the lifesaving technology more widely available.

HeartSine now designs, develops and manufactures Automated External Defibrillators (AEDs) in Belfast which are used to save lives in more than 40 countries around the world.

Declan O'Mahoney, HeartSine CEO

Declan O’Mahoney (pictured) became its CEO late last year. An experienced technology entrepreneur, he says he has never been involved with a product that is so “morally right,” pointing out that more people die of sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) than from lung cancer, breast cancer and AIDS combined.

“I was at an event recently for some of the world’s top cardiac surgeons and at the start they stood up and told everyone where the fire exits were but they didn’t say where the AEDs were or even if they had one in the building,” he said.

“Maybe a thousand people die from fire every year, but a quarter of a million die from SCA. There is legislation saying you must tell people where the fire exits are and where the fire extinguishers are, but there is no legislation saying you must have an AED, which is mad.”

SCA kills 270 people every single day in the UK and many of these deaths could be prevented if a defibrillation ‘shock’ was administered to the victim within five minutes. The chances of surviving an SCA decrease by 10% for every minute a ‘shock’ is delayed.

O’Mahoney says the message is now getting out, in part thanks to the miraculous survival of former Bolton footballer Fabrice Muamba.

“I met him last week and he was shocked by Heartsine devices on that field. Our devices kept him alive until the paramedics got there. He was a perfectly health man, playing soccer, super fit, and he drops to the ground without warning or symptoms. The lights just went out. That’s how sudden SCA can be.”

The light, portable and easy-to-use devices, guide the user step-by-step through the rescue process, from applying the pads to pushing the button to deliver a shock to the heart. HeartSine’s samaritan PAD uses a patented technology to tell a rescuer if they should push harder, faster or slower when delivering CPR compressions and also when to deliver the ‘shock’.

The investment it has put into its technology allows the one-time spinout from the University of Ulster, which has 70 staff, to compete with globally recognised rivals. HeartSine assemble 2,500 units a month in 23 languages and its AEDs can be found everywhere from GAA fields, schools and Shell Oil super-tankers to Air Force One and the White House.

“We’ve now started a year-long roll out of putting new AEDs in 104 aircraft for American Airlines. As well as saving lives, they’ve made that decision because it costs them millions of dollars to do an emergency landing in the wrong place. Having these devices is a no brainer,” said Declan. “If the chief medical officer of American Airlines is choosing to use a product from a Northern Irish company rather than one of the big guys that tells you that we must have the right technology.”

The CEO says HeartSine is moving from being a “head down” technology company in the development phase into sales mode.

Big markets for its products currently include the US, Canada, Mexico and across Europe, but new business is emerging from Asian countries like Thailand and South Korea.

“All of our profit has been reinvested in R&D into next generation products and expanding our markets. We’ve added three countries in the last couple of months to our distribution channels and I am in China and Japan in the next couple of weeks where we hope to do major things,” he said.

“We have a major R&D road map for new products both at the higher end and lower end of the scale. Right now our focus is on better, more complicated devices that are capable of making really clever decisions.”

“I am a technology guy but this is a product that just sells itself. In my other businesses it was all about out manoeuvring the other guy,” he said. “Now we’re saving peoples’ lives every day. That’s a great career.”

*This article first appeared in the April 2013 edition of Ulster Business magazine*