A very different silicon revolution

It is one of the most unusual production floors in Britain. Men sketch or pore over laptops, with rows of reddish-pink hands and male organs standing as bizarre desk accessories. Trays of neat pink and white squares, looking like cakes, turn out to be dozens of fake cysts and lymphomas. Shoulders, hernias, arms, small intestines – they are all here in replica, and in great numbers. Welcome to Margot Cooper’s world.

Margot Cooper moved to Bristol from London at end of eighties, having put her medical artist career in medical education on hold following the birth of her third child. But she then decided to do what she describes as “a last dash.” Some dash. Nearly 25 years later, Limbs & Things is a 100-employee, £12m-turnover business with subsidiaries in US, Australia and Sweden. It is a world-leading business in medical education, designing and making human body parts out of silicon and foam latex.

“At the end of the eighties it became evident to me that there was going to be a new way of teaching medical students and nurses in basic skills,” she recalls. There were regulatory and technological changes – such as new devices enabling keyhole surgery – and training programmes were scrambling to catch up. “I took a punt and decided to get going.”

Her idea was to create models that could replace the patient at first stage of training, so that medical staff could learn how to conduct procedures away from the operating theatre. The models needed to be as accurate as possible in order to provide the right experience. There was little market research. “We just had to get some models into the market and do the market development ourselves.”

Knowing what the customer needs drives the company. That means, for example, understanding the course content in medical training: “it is important for us to be on the steering group of the courses run by the medical colleges,” explains Cooper, “and if our models do not achieve exactly what is required as part of the course, it won’t sell. We get very close to our customers and find out exactly what they need. Then we produce an accurate, high quality, realistic product that is better than those of our competitors.”

Much of the genius of Limbs & Things is its expertise with materials. “We do funny things to them,” smiles Cooper, “by pushing them away from their day job. We’re always searching for materials.”

In the nineties, every part was made from foam latex. Now the principal material is silicon. The use of silicon for casting human parts was driven by the sophisticated technical demands of the film industry; the materially curious Limbs & Things has been a beneficiary. “It’s strong, soft and has a good memory,” explains Cooper.

Most parts are made in Bristol or within Britain. Cooper says that the close relationship between R&D and production is vital. “It creates a sense of belonging and unity and helps with quality control. It maintains our levels of innovation and problem solving. You can start with the first pencil strokes and finish seeing it in use in a workshop. All our people genuinely feel they are making the world a better place.”

Take the birthing baby, the company’s biggest selling product. It took five years to develop, prototype and test in conjunction with Southmead Hospital in Bristol.

It is for training on all births but specifically for the condition known as shoulder dystocia where the baby’s shoulder is caught behind the mother’s pubic bone. In such cases, the doctors and midwives have only got five minutes in which to deliver the baby, during which time they will get read-outs on the amount of strain on the neck. “The people who train on the course with our model get zero accidents according to studies carried out,” claims Cooper. “Southmead is the safest place in the world to have babies.”

The capabilities of Limbs & Things were acknowledged in a Queen’s Award for Innovation in 2013. As Cooper observes at the beginning of this short video, “innovation is about solving problems.” And that Limbs & Things most definitely does.

An exporter from day one

Right from the beginning, Limbs & Things struck a development deal with a Norwegian company. “It was one of our first ever products. They came to see us and were amazed by our technology. We developed products for them and we continue to have a commercial relationship with them today.” The deal took Limbs & Things immediately into manufacturing and overseas supply, and the company has never looked back. Today, it has 80 distributors around the world and exports 80 per cent of its products. After all, people are the same the world over.

While America and Australia are the company’s biggest direct export markets, their top distributors operate in Japan, Korea, Netherlands (which has access to Germany) and Ireland. China is emerging as an important market.

“We have worked with United Kingdom Trade and Investment (UKTI)  over the years, particularly on certain big exhibitions. We’ll continue to go on trade missions. We have been on trade missions and have received help at major industry exhibitions. There has been a lot of collaboration over the years – such as when we are bidding for new contracts – and that continues.”

Build a team, build a business

“I’m Australian and grew up on the land, so I just get on with things,” says Cooper. “But when you start a business as an innovator, you find that you have to carry out an awful lot of business activities that aren’t your bag.

“It is not until you get to a position when you can actually employ the right people for the right jobs that you can become efficient in all areas and profitable.

“Until you reach that point, you feel as though you are on your own. It is quite stressful, although it can be exciting and successful. You can be a great success story but still have a rotten cash-flow. Once you can bring in good people around you, it all becomes much easier.”

Growth from new markets and new products

Growth for Limbs & Things is set to come from new markets such as China, India and Africa, as well as from its existing customer base, says Cooper. Growth also hinges on new product development and innovation, as the business responds to a fresh wave of advances in medical technology. Right now, many products are being redeveloped so that they can be used under ultrasound guidance.

“We are re-engineering our successful products, says Cooper. “We are incorporating many more features that people want. In the end, you just have keep very close to the client, have the right product, deliver and be approachable. Make sure the client loves you and wants to work with you.”

UKTI has helped businesses such as Limbs & Things with advice and support in many aspects of exporting. Arrange a face-to-face meeting with a UKTI adviser today.

The Business Growth Service is now closed to new customers. Contractual commitments to existing customers will be honoured, as long as all support and related activity is completed by 31 March 2016. If you’re looking to find what business support is available in your area, your local Growth Hub may be able to help.