The NHS at 70: how accelerators are future-proofing the health service

The way that innovation is brought to market has changed. If you work in health or technology, it’s unlikely that you’ll have missed the surge in accelerators and incubators in recent years.

As the NHS begins a series of 70th anniversary celebrations, how are these new models starting to re-shape the health system – and future-proof it for the next seventy years?

While the service has always been a hotbed of innovative thinking and problem-solving, it hasn’t always been the best at adopting innovation.

“I have described my job in selling to the NHS as feeling as if I am pushing several large rocks up a hill, and running between them to make sure that none of them slide gently down behind me. When people have responded, ‘oh, you mean like spinning plates, I have disagreed – spinning plates requires a gentle nudge to keep a momentum; this is solid work.

That’s the viewpoint of Katherine Ward, chief commercial office and MD, UK and Europe for Healthy.io, a digital health firm with a time- and resource-saving product, as told in her blog post for the NHS Innovation Accelerator (NIA) website.

Healthy.io is an Israeli company which has developed a urinalysis device for smartphones. The innovation makes use of established dipstick urine tests, but leverages the imaging capabilities of smartphone technology to allow patients to perform tests themselves at home, and share the results securely with a clinician.

In the case of UTIs, Healthy.io says that its product reduces the need for GP visits in women aged 18-64.

While the benefits of such a simple solution may seem obvious, Ward analogy gives you an idea of the considerable difficulties in pitching and selling into the NHS.

But she’s now a Fellow of the NHS Innovation Accelerator. So how has this helped?

“Thanks to the NHS Innovation Accelerator, three of my rocks are now at the top of the hill, and on the cusp of moving rapidly. Two NHS and one private sector client signed up in the first quarter of 2018, and I expect two more NHS customers by June.”
She continued: “I realised early on that the NIA would not only give us a branding and recognition within the NHS which would open doors and make us easier for the NHS to do business with us, but that it would also provide me, as the first employee outside Tel Aviv, with a network of friends and colleagues with whom I could share the journey. The NIA also opened the doors of the Academic Health Science Networks (AHSNs) to us, who have been critical friends – helping with marketing materials, introductions and funding evaluations.”
Different accelerators work in slightly different ways. Arguably the NHS Innovation Accelerator is one of the best for making connections. Access to the AHSNs is invaluable because the networks have an ear to the ground when it comes to the needs of local populations. While the NHS may be seeking closer integration of its services as it celebrates its 70th year, it’s clear that different regional demographics have different priorities in healthcare.

By partnering with the AHSNs, the NIA is helping to increase the opportunities for adoption by taking advantage of this uniquely localised model.
In addition to access to the AHSNs, the NIA offers its fellows a team dedicated to day-to-day support with the challenges associated with scaling and networking, mentors from high-profile departments across a range of specialisms and a bursary to support the launch.

The NIA may be the best example of an accelerator which is changing the NHS at both a regional and a local level. In contrast, the majority of initiatives focus on just one region, and are often closely tied in with the local academic infrastructure.

One of the first on the digital health scene was DigitalHealth.London, which operates with the support of London’s three AHSN’s, as well as UCL and Imperial College.

This accelerator takes an increasingly popular approach to accelerating innovation uptake: mobilising doctors and clinical staff who have ideas to act within the NHS. So-called doctorpreneurs are becoming increasingly prevalent in discussions around commissioning and contracts.

This kind of ‘change from within’ approach is seen by many as the answer to the tech adoption challenge. But accelerators are also interested in patient innovators too. After all, it’s the ultimate form of validation.

Echo is one such example. A simple app for repeat prescriptions which is now available to NHS patients in the UK, Echo’s two co-founders both take medication to manage long-term conditions.

By taking steps to closely integrate the app with the NHS electronic prescription service, the app is now performing well, having secured £7m in funding on the back of its commercial potential.

For other startups however, the NHS isn’t the main obstacle. The initial cash injection required to get the product to commercial viability is sometimes all that’s needed to complete the picture.

That’s why some accelerators, like the Medtech Accelerator from Health Enterprise East, offers a simple awards-based programme, whereby companies simply submit an application – there’s an ongoing call for entries which doesn’t close – and then the awards committee assess against a strict criteria. There’s a total of £2 million in the pot, but there’s one major stipulation: any entries must have come from within the NHS and be based on NHS Intellectual Property.

So this accelerator really caters for those startups who already have a clear in with the system, but just need a financial boost to get off the ground.

What interests me most is what will happen next with accelerators and incubators. We seem to be reaching a critical mass of innovation in the UK, and while the accelerators are undoubtedly helping to support the flow of implementation across the NHS, there’s still so much to do. In short, there are too many good ideas and not enough resources to put them into action. Perhaps in ten years time, every NHS trust will come complete with its own integrated accelerator, and the time to market could be reduced to just a few weeks – or perhaps that’s just wishful thinking.



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