TickleFLEX History

Peter tells the story of how TickleFLEX evolved into its current form...

I’m an engineer, having grown my career building big stuff like CNC machine tools and wind turbines.

Sadly twelve years ago I had to give up half of my pancreas, leaving me with Type 1 diabetes and the need to self-inject several times a day.

I’ve never found this easy but as all diabetics know, you don’t have a choice. Most of it was the angst of possibly hitting a nerve, but also the scar tissue around my abdomen limited the suitable sites. Over using easy to reach sites caused variation in the speed at which insulin was absorbed.

One day after a particularly nasty nerve strike I thought I would see if I could devise a tool to improve the process of self-injecting. I had a shopping list:

  • Reduce the discomfort of hitting a nerve.
  • Gather up the subcutaneous tissue under the needle as I might otherwise do with a pinch to improve consistency.
  • Steady my hand so that I could reach further around my body to inject in more places, without going in too deep or shearing the needle.

Generation 1

93 parts to 75 parts

Scholarly articles found using Google taught how vibration can act as an analgesic. I found that small vibration motors were low cost as they were widely used for silent alerts in cell phones. Combing the principles could be the answer to the first item on my list.

If I could devise a mechanism to pile up the skin as I pushed my device against the injection site I could emulate the action of my fingers and create a pucker of subcutaneous tissue and thereby answer the second point on my list.

If the device included a textured pad of a reasonable surface area then it would limit how far you could press it into the skin, and by gripping the skin it would prevent the insulin pen sliding sideways and so answer my last point.

So the first Generation TickleTec was born:

TickleTec Generation 1 (open with motors)

It included vibration motors in each of 3 fingers. As the finger pads were pushed against the skin, the swinging arms would bring them inwards and backwards, pinching and gripping the skin. When the fingers had withdrawn the vibration motors would turn on and then the whole assembly could slide backwards as the needle entered the body.

But with 93 parts it was complex. I managed to build a prototype with my Form 1 SLA rapid prototyping machine and spent a while testing it. I then discovered something unexpected. The analgesic effect persisted even when the vibration motors were not working. I had discovered that analgesia also worked from the mere tactile distraction effect, so I set about simplifying it to produce a variant without the motors. This reduced the part count to 75.

But the design had retained the complexities that were really only necessary for the powered variant. I resolved to start again with a clean sheet and try and simplify it further.

TickleTec Generation 1 (closed with motors)

Generation 2

75 parts to 28 parts

Generation 1 fitted onto the pen, but all pens were different so I would need a lot of different adapters – a product nightmare. I then realised that whereas all the pens were different, the needles were largely the same. If TickleTec fitted onto the needle then one size would fit all.

This design now used roller tracks to guide the path of the fingers as they were pushed backwards. The ramp was designed to produce the optimum path to both retract and pinch in.

It now had just 28 parts and was much simpler to build. This was the design I entered in the 2016 UK Design Council product design competition called “Spark” and which got me selected as one of the twelve finalists - with an award sufficient to develop the product properly and a lot of help with how to bring it to market.

Having tooled up I produced some samples and devised a series of tests to check how robust TickleTec was. One of them was a 2m drop test onto a hard floor. Every now and then a finger would catch at a funny angle, dislodging a roller’s axle. The result was a dramatic spring powered disassembly, with tiny parts conspiring to fire into concealed locations. It was a warning!

TickleFLEX Generation 2

Generation 3

28 parts to 2 parts

I clearly had an issue so I reverted to my favourite method to free the imagination - a session of sensory deprivation enabled by a hot bath in a dark room. I asked myself if it would be possible to produce the required finger motions by designing a flexure that would collapse as required to emulate the same pinch and grip of the previous mechanical device?

And so I had my “eureka” moment and TickleFLEX was born.

I experimented with a series of variants cast from moulds made by my rapid prototyping machine until I got the ideal motion profile. It could also have a more complete radial array of fingers giving improved symmetry. And moulded in silicon it would be pretty much unbreakable.

I had already tooled up to produce Gen 2, and now faced the hard decision whether to scrap the costly injection moulding tooling and effectively start again. I was also still in the Spark competition and had a limited time before as a finalist I would have to pitch to the judges who would select the winning entries. Amazingly TickleFLEX now had just 2 parts, but would they think that I had suffered the typical inventor’s weakness of never ending evolution?

Happily the answer was an emphatic NO. In fact I gained credit for the bold move and to my delight became one of the three ‘winners’. The Spark award was hugely important in establishing the product’s credibility and came with sufficient investment funds to properly launch the business.

TickleFLEX Generation 3

More information...

About TickleTec

How TickleTec established itself as a medical products company…

Peter's Story

Listen to Peter describe why he developed TickleFLEX and why it works...