Varadis: The Cork start-up shifting from space tech to medtech

Varadis CEO Brad Wrigley and co-founder Dr Russell Duane discuss the company’s radiation detection sensors, its involvement with the Artemis missions and the planned expansion into new markets.

While working with NASA to support upcoming moon missions, Varadis is also looking to launch its products into the medical market.

The Cork-based start-up develops radiation detection sensors that can detect and measure absorbed doses of ionising radiation such as gamma rays, protons and x-rays.

The company said these small sensors are designed to be cost effective. They require no power to detect radiation and can be easily integrated into electronic systems.

Varadis was born out of research in the Tyndall National Institute at University College Cork, where the technology behind these Radiation Sensing Field Effect Transistors (Radfets) has been developed for more than 30 years.

These sensors are already used in important research sites such as the International Space Station and at CERN, where they measure radiation levels around the Large Hadron Collider.

The company’s CEO, Brad Wrigley, is an entrepreneur and investor with more than 20 years’ experience working within government, medtech and IT industries.

Wrigley told SiliconRepublic.com that he spoke to the engineers and scientists behind the Radfet technology in 2018, when they were seeking to commercialise the intellectual property.

“We created the company in early 2019, we signed the licence in May 2019 and we traded from day one, made revenue day one as soon as we took it out,” Wrigley said. “There was just an interest in this technology globally.”

While the company is still young, Wrigley has been very pleased with the growth and interest from customers so far. He said Varadis’s revenue has been “doubling year on year” and is expected to reach seven figures by 2023.

The Cork start-up works with major names such as NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) on various projects. Last year, Varadis secured a €600,000 contract with the ESA to design and manufacture ‘plug and play’ radiation detection modules for ESA satellites.

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Varadis has also been supported by Enterprise Ireland and the ESA Business Incubation Centre, a network of research groups and programmes that support start-ups in the field.

Mission to the moon

The Tyndall spin-out’s Radfet technology is being used by NASA in its Artemis programme, which aims to bring humans back to the moon by 2025.

Multiple Radfet sensors are fitted on the spacecraft for the Artemis 1 mission, designed to monitor radiation levels as it conducts an uncrewed orbit around the moon. While this will be one giant leap for Irish space technology, the launch has been delayed multiple times in recent months.

Wrigley said multiple space organisations and companies are involved in the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. This is the reusable, solar-powered craft that is part of the Artemis missions, capable of carrying up to six astronauts to the moon.

The organisations involved include NASA, Boeing and the Japanese Space Agency, which are all customers of Varadis. Wrigley said he is “very confident” that Varadis will also be involved in the future Artemis missions.

“Pretty much every space agency in the world that’s involved in the next lunar mission are customers of us today for radiation dosimetry,” Wrigley added.

The shift to medtech and beyond

The use of Radfet technology has been tried and tested for space applications, but Varadis is confident its sensors can be used in others markets, particularly in healthcare. For example, Radfet sensors could help measure the radiation that a tumour has absorbed during radiotherapy sessions.

Wrigley said that while technology of the sensors was first designed for space, it has been possible to tweak the readouts to make the Radfet technology suitable for different parameters.

“We’ve been able to take that and now apply it to other industries,” Wrigley said. “So our biggest market will inevitably be healthcare. We anticipate radiotherapy specifically and measurement of radiation during radiotherapy procedures.

“We’ve signed a contract with a company recently to provide into their system, which is going to be a globally rolled out patch for radiotherapy measurement.”

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Dr Russell Duane is a senior researcher at Tyndall and a co-founder of Varadis. He is currently responsible for improving the performance of the Radfet sensors and finding ways to adjust their sensitivity.

Duane agreed that the sensors have various applications, but told SiliconRepublic.com that the movement into the medical space is the most exciting aspect for him.

“I think it can make a big difference in people’s lives,” Duane said. “So that would be my strong motivation, to get into the medical market.”

Beyond medicine Wrigley and Duane noted various other uses they are looking into for the sensors. Varadis is currently supplying smart city sensors to government organisations, which can detect radiation in built-up areas.

Wrigley also said homeland security organisations have expressed interest in the technology for public safety applications.

“The core engine of [Radfet] really hasn’t changed dramatically,” Wrigley said. “It’s the application of it and circuitry around it, which we’re now investing in to apply to all these different areas.”

Varadis is also exploring the potential uses in the wearable market. For example, Wrigley said the sensors could be used on hospital or power plant workers who have the potential of being exposed to radiation.

“The great thing about our device, comparative to many devices out there, is the ability to operate in both an active and passive mode, which is really why we get a lot of traction on this device,” Wrigley explained. “It can sit silent and unpowered or it can be powered, which really opens up massive opportunity.”

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