Published in the Health Service Journal on January 23 | Pam Garside
I have been working for over a year with Nina Nashif, Jake Arnold-Forster and other colleagues to help to establish Healthbox in the UK, which has launched seven health tech start-ups to market.
Last week was “Innovation Day”, which introduced the companies to UK investors and the wider health community. It was a big day for the young entrepreneurs. They each presented their companies to a crowd of 250 investors, healthcare leaders from the NHS and the private sector and other entrepreneurs.
‘The best innovative ideas for the health service are likely to come from “the periphery” of the system’
That’s not an easy gig for anyone, but one of the entrepreneurs was just 23. The result was astonishing after three months in essentially an entrepreneurs’ boot camp. The creativity and drive they showed was truly remarkable.
Healthbox is Europe’s first business accelerator focused exclusively on supporting innovation and entrepreneurship in healthcare. It was developed by Chicago-based Sandbox Industries, which is the exclusive fund manager of the BlueCross BlueShield Venture Fund. Healthbox UK was funded by BUPA , Bayer, Guy’s and Thomas’ Charity and Serco.
Seven companies were chosen from 140 applications from 21 different countries and they have completed an intensive 12-week programme with a range of resources to promote rapid development.
Each team was awarded £50,000 in seed capital in return for a percentage of equity. The teams were given three months in a collaborative workspace designed for tech start-ups.
Fast moving train
A wide range of mentors, including senior NHS and private sector executives, visited the hub and spent time with the teams, forging lasting mentor relationships, including Chris Brinsmead, the government adviser on life sciences; Ruth Poole, group commercial director for Healthcare at Home; and Sir Cyril Chantler, chair of University College London Partners.
Of the seven teams, four have relocated to London from bases in Ireland, Romania and Germany. One of the teams, SOMA Analytics from Germany, said completing the accelerator programme was like stepping on to a fast moving train, they had achieved so much in such little time.
The NHS has so much to benefit from these and other new technologies. The best innovative ideas that will transform the health service are likely to come from “the periphery” of the system, which is why we should be doing all we can to support and nurture entrepreneurs.
‘These types of start-up companies need an ecosystem in which to thrive’
And what did I think of the teams? There was Portable Medical Technology, developed by a young Irish team, who’s product ONCOassist enables oncologists to access the complex calculations and prognostic tools that they need at the point of care on their mobile phones.
Like many of the best ideas it is simple − one that does away with specialist equipment and could transform information support at the point of care.
Less simple but no less exciting is Desktop Genetics, founded by a team of Cambridge graduates, which is developing a robust and rapid in-house gene assembly system that will provide researchers with 100-fold greater sequence accuracy than that achieved with today’s techniques.
The gene assembly robot being developed combines the company’s software with proven biochemistry into an automated bench top solution. They are tackling the primary sources of gene assembly error: poor gene design, operational error and the use of error prone starting materials.
The Desktop Genetics’ product is targeted at biotechnology R&D labs across industry and academia, where global sales of synthetic genes were estimated at £650m in 2011. By offering state of the art gene assembly accuracy at a disruptively low cost, Desktop Genetics will increase productivity in pharmaceutical research and development, advance drug discovery and make tomorrow’s life science breakthroughs possible.
But the team voted by the audience as the best on the day was MIRA Rehab. Led by 23-year-old Romanian Cosmin Mihaiu, who picked up the £10,000 prize, MIRA designs and develops software to enhance the delivery of physical therapy by “gamifying” home exercises which patients are required to do as part of their treatment plan.
Adherence to prescribed home exercises is low, despite professional agreement that compliance with treatment plans can shorten recovery time and reduce costs for the health sector.
The Medical Interactive Recovery Assistant (MIRA) contains a series of specialised video games designed with physiotherapists to make exercises fun and convenient for patients recovering from surgery or injury.
‘It might be time for the NHS to help its own and look to others for the solutions to its problems’
The solution can be delivered inexpensively using a generic PC and Microsoft’s Kinect software, which tracks the patient’s movements to determine they are performing the prescribed exercises correctly.
Data about their performance is collected and available via a dashboard for therapists to monitor the progress of their patient’s recovery and tailor the treatment plan.
These types of start-up companies need an ecosystem in which to thrive. It is tough to sell into healthcare as an industry sector.
We are in a time where the venture capital industry is a shadow of what it used to be and early-stage companies need to attract new sources of investment via programmes like this.
Equally, in the week that the secretary of state called for the NHS to become paperless by 2018 − and as he suggested, could adopt IT to “help it deliver services sustainably” − it might just be time for the NHS to both help its own and look to others for the solutions to its problems.