James Dyson Award past winners: KwickScreen, 2011
We catch up with Michael Korn, Founder of KwickScreen and UK winner of the James Dyson Award in 2011 about making the most of a global pandemic, developing an idea into a company and what's next for the inventor ten years after he won the award.
“KwickScreen was always waiting for an opportunity. I didn't know it was going to come in the form of a global pandemic.”
- Michael Korn, Founder, KwickScreen
Viruses. Transmission. Sanitisation. Words that have newly dominated our everyday conversations this past year. But for Michael Korn, James Dyson Award winner and inventor of KwickScreen, these conversations reinforced the need for his invention; a journey he has been on since 2007.
“We want to be a world leader of products that improve the patient space in hospitals.” Ten years after winning a James Dyson Award prize, we caught up with Michael to see what KwickScreen is up to today.
So Michael, what is KwickScreen and where did you get your inspiration from?
The KwickScreen invention, the product invention, is a retractable room divider for hospitals. It allows them to create extra spaces, anywhere, for all different types of patients and scenarios. The idea started back in 2007, whilst studying at the Royal College of Art in London, when I was looking at hospitals that were struggling with flu seasons and outbreaks of infections. I was interested in that problem because, at that time in the NHS, a lot of patients were contracting MRSA in hospital. They would turn up for an ailment and then, whilst being in hospital, would contract this awful virus. Hospital beds filled up as the infection rate grew. And a lot of people, sadly, lost their lives. I thought this was a powerful problem and one that really deserved attention.
The original KwickScreen was a see-through divider to segregate patients on wards. We all now know that as a sneeze screen. But back in 2007 it was a pretty obscure thing to be interested in. People thought that if you were infected you had to be in some sort of cocooned, negative pressure room. But as we now know, many infections, like MRSA and Covid, are transmitted by touch, by droplets, by particles, and a physical, see-through barrier means that patients can still have the visibility of care of the staff. But the risk of infection, patient to patient, or staff to patient, is vastly reduced. And it also improves hand hygiene.
“This invention is a fundamentally rewarding thing to be doing, to be making healthcare better.”
- Michael Korn, Founder, KwickScreen
So, my student invention of having a rollup screen that was portable and easy to clean sought to solve this problem. And it was adopted by the NHS. And slowly since then I've grown the business. Before Covid hit, we had sold to every NHS trust, but in small numbers. When Covid hit, this niche product that solved what was a niche problem suddenly became in huge demand, because MRSA is transmitted similarly to Covid, and the NHS has a serious lack of appropriate spaces. They needed the ability to flex their healthcare spaces. Both our isolation screens and our privacy screens were in high demand. Most notably we supplied to the NHS Nightingale at Excel, London (the world’s biggest field hospital).
Disposable, hospital curtains, or even the laundered curtains are, as far as I’m concerned, a thing of the past. They're awful for the environment and really bad for spreading infections because they're just big, hanging germ catchers. They are not flexible either as they are stuck to curtain tracks. What KwickScreen is, and the products that we are developing, is what hospitals will have in the future.
KwickScreen was always waiting for an opportunity. I didn't know it was going to come in the form of a global pandemic. Normally, it comes in the form of finding a product ‘market fit’. We looked at a whole load of different applications over the past 10 years for the product and the technology. But it ended up being the first one I came up with that was needed. This is exactly the product I submitted to the James Dyson Award, that is what hospitals need.
Where did your acknowledgement of the medical problem come from?
I think my parents would've loved a trilogy of doctors. My brother and sister are doctors. My grandpa was a doctor. So, the NHS and medicine have very much been part of my DNA and the family dinner table conversations. I was very interested in it. And when I was studying design, my first invention in the Royal College of Art was a needlestick safety device. I was just fascinated by hospitals. I think maybe the problems, and there are a lot of problems in hospitals, were very, very interesting to me as opportunities to make better. And they're multifaceted problems. I find it a fascinating area. This invention is a fundamentally rewarding thing to be doing, to be making healthcare better.
When did the James Dyson Award come on your radar, and what inspired you to enter?
Well, James Dyson was always on my radar. He was one of the reasons why I decided to pursue a career as a designer entrepreneur, rather than a manufacturing engineer. I met James at the launch of the Dyson Ball vacuum cleaner…(although he probably won’t remember!)… and was really inspired by it. I thought, "Well, this is what I want to do." And I learnt he went to the Royal College of Art too. So, it was pre-coming up with KwickScreen that I was inspired by him. It was a natural progression given that I wanted to pursue this product post-graduation. I always knew that I didn’t want to take investment too. I wanted to, as much as possible, fund it myself. I applied for these very generous competitions and I won a few of them. But the one that I'm most proud of is the James Dyson Award, because the recognition from James Dyson and what ‘Dyson’ is, I mean, it's exactly what I want my business to be doing.
“We are always using this Award as a recognition of us being a cool company. And that will live forever.”
- Michael Korn, Founder, KwickScreen
Aside from the recognition, did the monetary prize help in the early days of the business?
Absolutely. It enabled me to not take investment. It took me to a stage where we could start generating revenue, and we, 12 years on, have never taken investment. When you don’t have investors telling you what to do, you can be much bolder, much more innovative, much more long-term thinking, much freer – it's wonderful. I always wanted that for KwickScreen, to be in charge of our own destiny. Although, it’s one thing not wanting investors, but it’s completely another thing not needing investors. The prize from the James Dyson Award allowed us to spend it on whatever we wanted. We spent it on keeping the company alive, so that we could be self-funding. That first leg up is just amazing really. And through the Award we also got wonderful PR that boosted our exposure. We had enquiries for products, even though we weren’t ready to sell because it was so early in the business journey. But that was fine. We got interest from some distributors who we're still working with now. In the immediate term was the money, in the medium term were the partners that we could bring on board. In the long term, we are always using this Award as a recognition of us being a cool company. And that will live forever.
Is there a lesson you've learnt from entering the Award?
KwickScreen really was in its very early days when I entered the Award. And the Award was a very competitive thing to do. It was one of those things that I could have thought, "Ooh this is really competitive, this is really hard, I should focus my energies on the easy wins." But the more ambitious things we do, the more chances there are to achieve great things. I only wanted to have a business that was going to be something impactful and significant. The Award taught us that we must keep playing big. And now, that is exactly what we’re doing as a business at KwickScreen. We are quoting for projects that are many times the size of the revenue of the company cumulatively over its whole life. We are still ambitiously putting ourselves forward and being seriously considered. Hopefully, we will win some of these projects, especially now, because we are at the forefront of helping the fight against Covid. We’re no longer a niche business supplying just NHS hospitals. We should be looking globally, and that's what we're doing.
Can you explain how different the business is now compared to your initial entry to the Award?
Immediately after I won the Award we had about three employees…now we have over 70. We started in a little room adjacent to the Royal College of Art and Imperial College, in London. Now, we have our own factory in West London. We manufacture everything in-house, including the core composite material. We have offices in Toronto, California and Manila, and distributors in 18 countries. We're talking to some of the biggest dealerships and distribution partners across North America. And we are looking to move to bigger premises. KwickScreen also has a rolling graduate scheme where we take the best and brightest of graduates, often engineers and designers. But we've got a very open remit… We can't have enough smart, young people. In the early days, there wasn't enough work to justify lots of people because we were just getting going. But we've broken the ice now. As any engineer would know, once you've got over the inertia, and you've got the momentum, it's easier to go from second gear to third gear, than it is to go from first to third. So, we grew, we doubled in size last year. And this year, we aim to triple in size. We'll be exceeding six million in revenue. To do that, we've rebuilt a factory, we've re-hired a team and we’ve spent a huge amount on R&D. It's an absolute growth period for the business so that KwickScreen can now explode into something that's really game-changing.
What advice would you give to someone that is contemplating entering the Award today?
I'd ask why they were entering it. And if they truly felt that what they were doing was aligned to what the Award is there for, and they really believed that, then put everything into it. The process of applying and going through the motions will be helpful anyway, whether they win or not. But really, it would go back to the ‘why’.
So what’s next for KwickScreen?
The next step is to grow our company. It’s all about the people. To have this company grow full of people that really believe in the mission and can take us to where we want to go. We want to be a world leader of products that improve the patient space in hospitals. And primarily, we're going to supersede hospital curtains. So, our immediate action is to replace curtains and be the future of space management in hospitals. We think that post-Covid, people are going to be a lot more aware of the state of their hospitals.
Then, we have a whole raft of future exciting projects and products, to bring new game changing innovations to the market. And again, that's following Dyson's approach – first, we'll do vacuum cleaners, then the doors open and there's a whole load of opportunity. We are already working on the products that are going to come after we have replaced curtains.
KwickScreen’s most recent projects:
1. Supplying UCLH with a social distancing screen between every bed
2. Partnering with Portacabin to provide social distancing visitation pods for care homes
3. Supporting the NHS in its vaccination drive
Find out more about KwickScreen via their website.