Frontier Profile: Shelby Temple
Pushing the boundaries of knowledge to make amazing surprising and potentially life-saving discoveries.
Shelby Temple is a man with a real passion for science. BBSRC’s winner of the ‘Innovator of the Year’ title is now focussed on turning his invention into a viable commercial product that could hugely benefit everyone undergoing their normal eye test.
The 45-year-old grew up on a small farm in Canada, and now lives with his family in Bristol. He’s recently made the transition from science into the commercial world in a bid to ensure the success of a device that assesses eye health and risk of blindness.
The elegantly simple device uses a person’s ability to perceive different levels of polarised light to measure the density of macular pigments in the retina.
Dr Temple is now working to make his discovery and the tool to deliver it an everyday, affordable product that could be in every optician’s shop up and down the country and, perhaps, even be a part of many people’s essential medicine cabinet, in much the same way that blood pressure testing devices are now common place.
“I was originally inspired by a David Attenborough series featuring archer fish and proboscis monkeys. I started collecting and breeding fish and I knew I wanted to be a biologist but didn’t really know what that meant”, explains Dr Temple.
Shelby says that, although he’s had success with his discovery, there have been years of hard research to get this far. He draws attention to the fact that behind the closed doors of the labs there are researchers and scientists busy with their work and, even when they make a discovery, there is never a champagne eureka moment. Often the results of their labours are only known months or years later, when papers are published.
His aquatic interest and a masters in aquaculture led to a PhD on ‘Vision in fish’, important because he understood the link between vision and how it affects behaviour.
Experiments in ‘polarisation in vision’ led to some really important moments. He explains, “We took apart and played with LCD monitors, we pulled them apart and turned them into polarisation devices. Humans can’t see it but we thought fish could, so we did a series of experiments.
“There had been research to say that fish could see polarisation so we tested every kind of fish we could get our hands on or fit into our tank, and we tried different ways of presenting stimuli”. He goes on to explain that a serendipitous catch was instrumental: “We were looking for fish on a beach in Australia and captured a cuttlefish, so we decided to try it. When we started the experiment and put our polarised stimulus on the screen… Whoosh! The animal flew across the tank. It was clear they could see polarisation. That was a pivotal moment.”
While studying the limits of polarisation vision in cephalopods and crustaceans, Dr Temple noticed that he could see the stimuli he was presenting much more easily than he expected despite the fact that humans ‘don’t really see’ polarisation. “Humans see polarisation as a phenomenon that occurs inside the eye called Haidinger’s brushes”, explains Dr Temple. “There were various hypotheses to explain how humans could see the effect”, but Shelby’s research confirmed the role of macular pigments and his novel approach provided an entirely new way of measuring these difficult-to-measure molecules.
In 2015, BBSRC funding helped build a small portable prototype device that was used in comparison trials to prove the effectiveness of assessing macular pigment density.
Having built a device that worked, he was faced with the challenge of delivering it to consumers. Concerned about commercial organisations using the device to help market their own products, and therefore not be of benefit to the wider community, he has decided to pick up the challenge and has set up his own company to further develop and deliver the tool.
It means he has had to make the transition from science into the commercial world. Dr Temple explains, “I have essentially found a faster and more affordable way to measure macular pigment. Commercial companies are interested and there are various pathways to commercialise university research. I could have licensed it to an existing company, but who is better placed to realise the full potential than the person who has invented it?”
“I did research for 20 years, thoroughly enjoyed it and did all the things I ever wanted to do. This change feels like a midlife crisis. I wrote lots of papers but I’m now ready for the next challenge.”
Shelby Temple in the lab with a prototype.
So what is the next challenge? He explains, “It’s all about marketing. I’m proud I had the idea, I tested it, and it worked. The challenge is now to get others to understand what this device does, and how to get it to market”.
His company, Azul Optics Limited, is now working to build 20 desk-top units that, by the New Year, can be tested by opticians to provide real feedback. Long term, the plan is to create a smaller device that people could add to their medicine cabinet, much like home blood pressure monitors.
Dr Temple is clear that the device is important not just for vision testing: “My machine is valuable in providing information that empowers people to make decisions about their lifestyle. It’s not just about eye health; although it tests vision, vision is affected by diet and other behaviours like smoking, drinking and fitness.”
So what is the test? Essentially, it’s a threshold test. People look into a polarised light source and perceive the Haidinger’s brushes effect, and then it is made more difficult until the point that they can no longer see the effect. Like the best ideas, it’s easy and simple.
While there’s still plenty of work to do, Dr Temple is still able to look to the future. “I’ve always been a dreamer and inventor and a dabbler. When this project becomes self-sufficient, I still have plenty of other ideas!”