INNOVATION is becoming something of a watchword for the NHS, with medics and academics increasingly enlisting SMEs to help them improve efficiency and patient care.
As NHS England’s national medical director Sir Bruce Keogh put it last year: “With rising demand and escalating costs, innovation is not an option but a necessity if we are to build a sustainable NHS.”
Across the country, public health providers are building closer links with companies to offer them the access to patients they need to test and evaluate their products.
Oxfordshire-based Sensium Healthcare will soon become a tenant at the Liverpool Life Sciences Accelerator, which opens this summer.
It will allow the company the access it needs to inpatients at the Royal Liverpool Hospital to evaluate its wearable patch that records vital signs. By using a wireless network to supply nursing stations with data on heart and breathing rates – as well as temperature – every two minutes, it can save nurses’ time and trigger an early warning if a patient’s condition deteriorates.
And taking up a lease at the accelerator, which co-locates the hospital and the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM) – will see the company rubbing shoulders with academics and clinical experts.
“The key thing is the relationship between Sensium and the [hospital] trust, working with people who can help us to develop the product and create a system which is valuable for the NHS,” says UK sales manager Ruth Bakerson-Lowe.
The accelerator is headed up by Dr Steve Powell. As a consultant interventional radiologist, he used X-ray to guide ‘pinhole surgery’ when repairing narrowed arteries, dealing with blocked veins or clots.
However, when he took charge of strategy at the Royal – aiming to improve health across a population rather than an individual – he realised how crucial small businesses were.
“We got focused on disease resistance that big pharma doesn’t look at,” he says.
“The R&D requirement for them is massive. We wanted to find SMEs that had thought differently or stumbled across something, or were willing to commercialise a product an academic might have come up with.”
With LSTM taking up two floors of the building, companies will have access to leading researchers into antibiotic resistance and trials at the school’s insectaries – climate-controlled chambers for breeding insects such as mosquitoes, ticks and tsetse flies.
Along with England’s only NHS early trials unit, which allows the first tests of treatments on humans, it means the accelerator is likely to prove a draw to large companies.
“We are taking small companies and they are rubbing shoulders with large companies. They bypass the R&D by thinking differently,” says Dr Powell.
Proton Partners International, which specialises in proton beam therapy that can target cancers in sensitive areas, has been rapidly expanding. And alongside opening a specialist centre in Newport, south Wales, and gaining approval to build a Liverpool oncology centre, it has signed a ten-year lease at the Liverpool accelerator.
Contract manager Ron Russell says: “Our efforts at the accelerator are focused on research and basing ourselves there offered us the chance to be close to like-minded organisations who we might enter into partnerships with.
“We will have direct access to patients and never be far from clinicians, scientists and academics, all of which is so important to us.”
Merging business with healthcare research is not unique to Liverpool. When US life sciences firm Mapi announced it was moving in to Imperial College’s 23-acre innovation district in White City, west London, last month, chief executive James Karis said access to the “research ecosystem and the scientific community” was key.
“Our new White City home will be a global leadership centre for Mapi, allowing our innovative management and operational leaders to tap into the knowledge and dynamism in the UK’s golden triangle of leading universities and entrepreneurs,” he said.
Meanwhile, in March, the government endorsed the former AstraZeneca site in Charnwood, Leicestershire, as the UK’s first Life Sciences Opportunity Zone. The concept was inspired by efforts to repurpose facilities freed up when pharmaceutical giants downsized at Cheshire’s Alderley Park, and Discovery Park, in Kent.
A planned Innovation Centre at Charnwood Campus will see an existing laboratory refurbished with office provision to create small scale, flexible spaces for SMEs to start, develop and grow.
Tenants will have access to high-specification infrastructure and machinery, re-instating these legacy assets for the benefit of future growth.
There are hopes of locating a shared NHS pathology service at the site. It would not only serve hospitals in Leicester, Nottingham and Loughborough but enable diagnostic and therapeutic companies to get to grips with the health sector’s technology and evaluation requirements.
Getting this right is crucial, according to Suzie Ali-Hassan from the Northern Health Science Alliance (NHSA).
“Too many companies produce effective, clinically-proven health products but find they can’t sell to the NHS because they haven’t done their clinical evaluation within the healthcare system itself,” she says.
The NHSA is one of a number of organisations which act as a single point of entry to businesses seeking to access the NHS. Ali-Hassan says that by making the right connections early on, SMEs could find their technology being assessed in several intuitions at once to accelerate evaluation.
A strong consortium of centres can help products find the right evidence not only for NHS adoption but for the “gold stamp” of approval by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence – validation that could help when approaching markets further afield.
Singaporean medical tech firm Biobot Surgical is about to embark on a multi-centre study of its automated prostate biopsy robot with teaching hospitals in Sheffield and Leeds.
As well as working with senior urologists, it will be backed by the University of Sheffield’s ScHARR health economics group and supported with post-evaluation engagement by the Yorkshire and Humber Academic Health Science Network.
There are plenty of incentives for SMEs. Through its health and life sciences competitions, the government has made available some £30m to businesses working on early-stage and proving projects.
Each year, the NHS Innovation Accelerator, launched in 2015, selects innovators to benefit from mentoring, AHSN support and a bursary of up to £30,000.
Last year’s intake included developers of a walk-in test to help pharmacies determine whether a patient with a sore throat needed antibiotics, a digital tool to improve booking systems and reduce missed appointments and an app to help epilepsy sufferers monitor their condition.
Meanwhile, Innovate UK – the government agency working with companies to drive technological innovations – supports start-ups and SMEs in the fields of medicines discovery, gene therapy, and precision medicine via its Catapult programme.
Businesses and patients alike will hope to reap the benefits.