Forget CSI Crime Scene Investigation - the real detective work’s happening in an industrial unit near Meadowhall.
IF it wasn’t for lateness, Lucy Nuttall wouldn’t be where she is today. Now a 23-year-old entrepreneur, pioneer and potential market leader in the world of forensics, Lucy is leading a life she never expected.
And it all started when her sister - Claire Nuttall - was late meeting Lucy.
“At the time, I was studying business and marketing and we had a project in which we were to think of a business idea or product idea and take from concept to launch.
“When my sister explained why she was late I decided to take that as a starting point for my project.”
Her sister - a crime scene officer for South Yorkshire Police - was late because she was stuck at the crime scene waiting for her footprint casts to set. This was Lucy’s Eureka moment.
“It was when I asked her why it took so long to set that I started working on a solution.”
But Lucy’s project quickly transcended the assignment. She won first prize and £2500 at the Sheffield Hallam Enterprise Awards, which was being judged by Sheffield’s pro innovation company, Gripple.
“Gripple had just started its Incub department, which was set up specifically to help young entrepreneurs like met set up in business and I was the first one they took on - they used to call me the ‘cub.”
That was in 2010. Since then, in collaboration with Gripple under its Incub wing, Lucy has developed her forensic substance Nucast 180.
Nucast 180 is a ready-to-use clay-like material, rather like that which dentists use to take casts of one’s teeth - only Lucy’s will be used for footprints.
Already, as many as 30 police forces across the UK have tried out the product.
Lucy, from Gleadless, said: “At the moment, the substance police use to take forensic casts comes in 25 kilo bags and requires police to mix it with water.
“But that requires a person to know exactly how much water to use, as too much can slow down the setting time but also, they are pouring it out of a bag so it’s hard to control and hard to distribute evenly.”
The current substance can also take up to 40 minutes to dry, which can prove difficult on a crime scene.
“All forensic officers are trained to take a photograph and a cast but unfortunately the problems with the slow-setting time and means there are fewer casts being taken.
“Though casts are always taken at serious crime scenes, such as murders, which - unfortunate as it is - is good for us.”
There is - according to Lucy - a lot of research into hi-tech police equipment but little into its basic equipment such as the casting material, which is just as well for Lucy.
“It’s been a steep learning curve because I don’t have a background in forensic science but having my sister has been brilliant.
“She’s been telling me about what would work and what wouldn’t work.
“It’s fantastic having her to run these things by. I’ve also had to learn about the business side of things, such as marketing and distribution.”
The Nucast 180 comes with a rigid container, which, according to Lucy’s research, means the crime scene officer can apply it evenly.
“It comes as a kit - a bit like a cake mix - so everything they need is in there.”
Lucy has already sold her Nucast 180 to some police forces and is having it tested at Cellmark, which is a forensic science test centre.
Their report about Nucast 180 will - hopefully - push the product. Footprints are hugely important
Lucy said: “Casts of footprints give an indication of the size of the perpetrator, their weight an if there are any unique marking on their shoes, like a nip in the rubber on the sole, they can identify this in other prints from other crime scenes.
“When police have a suspect they can check their shoes for these markings.”
But she hasn’t stopped there. Lucy is also planning to take on one of the biggest crime problems in the country - lead theft.
Alongside developing her Nucast 180, Lucy has also created a product that enables police to do on-the-spot, on-site check for lead traces.
She said: “Lead theft is a big problem at the moment and many churches across the country have been targeted for their lead roofs.
“But the current means of testing for fingerprints is quite slow. It takes around two weeks for the lab to get the samples back, by which time police have had to release the suspect.”
The response to her latest product has been overwhelmingly positive.
“I sent out a newsletter asking which police forces wanted to be the first to trial the product and instantly I was bombarded with requests. We’ve got trials with some forces so hopefully we can start getting that product out there by the end of March.”
Lucy’s approach to developing her products is very much trial and error. “I don’t see the point in trying to get something perfect before you get it out there. The best thing to do is test it and keep refining it because the chances are that something will need changing whichever way you do it.”
And while her Nucast 180 is already in use within the UK, with more and more potential customer lining up, she’s keen to conquer the US market.
“I’m really keen to get this out to the US market but we will have to use a distributor for that and so far it’s looking good.”
Lucy, looking back at the past two years of her life, says: “It is extraordinary. Were it not for me following this up and having the opportunity to develop it through Hallam and Gripple I wouldn’t be where I am. It just goes to show that whatever is you’re thinking about, you should just have a go. You never know, it may pop up on CSI.”
On the case
The footprints left behind at a crime scene offer detectives vital evidence about the way in which a crime was conducted.
Unique marking on the sole - whether tears in the rubber or worn-out sections where the person has applied more pressure - allow detectives to identify suspects.
Castings of footprints preserve the findings and analysis of this is a specialist role within the police force.
Currently, casts can take up to 40 minutes to set.
Lucy’s Nucast 180 sets in just 10 minutes. The substance is rather like the clay an orthodontist uses to analyse someone’s teeth.
Footprints also give police an indication of the criminal’s height and weight.
The foot is - on average - around 15 per cent of a person’s height.