To mark the new year we’ve created a series of blogs looking at what 2020 has in store for various elements of the region’s health and social care economy.

This week Rob Berry, Head of Innovation at Kent Surrey Sussex Academic Health Science Network (AHSN), reflects on the AHSN Network’s evolving offer to health technology innovators.

As we move towards the mid-point of our second five-year licence it is helpful to reflect on what has changed and what will change over coming months, regarding the offer innovators can expect from AHSNs.

What have we learned?

Since the beginning of its second licence the AHSN Network has been using a national database to record activities with innovators.  This has helped confirm the scale of operation undertaken by commercial teams (typically those who engage first with innovators) across the AHSN Network.

The figures show that some 3,500 products from 2,500 companies have had some degree of assessment and support from AHSN staff during the year 2018/19.  Approximately 200 companies having working relationships that have lasted two or more years. While a significant number of innovators are receiving support, very few are at the ‘scaling up’ stage of their business.  This suggests that we may are providing support to companies at very early stages of development and/or that we are not attracting, or attractive to, companies at later stages, despite the potential benefits of later stage support that AHSNs provide.

The offer to later stage companies is possibly clearer from work AHSNs have been providing to scale up adoption of innovations, initially through the Innovation Technology Programme (ITP) and now the Accelerated Access Collaborative Rapid Uptake Products (RUP). 

These programmes have confirmed that if a product is sufficiently well evidenced, has case studies ready, national leadership and company resources to support widescale engagement, they can be scaled far faster than when innovators (small and medium sized companies) are left to their own devices.  This is an under exploited opportunity for innovators and AHSNs.

How have these insights helped evolve the offer from AHSNs?

While we still work towards the original intent of AHSNs, which is to accelerate uptake of innovation in the NHS, our current offer can be better described as emphasising a more structured and selective approach to innovation support.

A clearer description of our offer to innovators can be found on Health Tech Connect, but in short the AHSN Network will accelerate the development and uptake of innovation into the NHS by:

  • Supporting innovators to determine whether the innovation matches a need, and how widespread that need might be
  • Where further product development is necessary, signpost innovators to appropriate resources along the development pathway, including finance
  • Supporting innovators to understand the importance and validation of the real-world impact of their innovation in the NHS
  • Assessing, advising and supporting scale up plans when innovations have achieved initial uptake and have one or more real world case studies under their belt.

Innovators report that this is a clearer offer and AHSN commercial teams report that companies arrive with more realistic expectations of what to expect.

How will our work look and feel different in 2020?

There is already a greater sense of collaboration between AHSNs across the Network. The adoption of the Bridging the Gap programme as an AHSN Network approach is one of the more visible collective endeavours led by the commercial teams.

Later this month we (the AHSN Network) will be holding our first Bridging the Gap event in the Midlands. This is the fourth region to host these sessions after London, Leeds and Southampton.  A mini-BTG event will be held in Northern Ireland in March and discussions are underway with the AAC and NHSX about aligning programmes of engagement.

These developments will make the experience of innovators engaging with not just AHSNs but other agencies within the innovation landscape more consistent and more aligned.

Behind the scenes commercial directors have been developing a process for sharing more complete information of innovators and their innovation, enabling wider scaling up outside the original AHSN region. Sharing of resources, such as the Wessex Funding Opportunity Circular, is another simple yet effective way of supporting innovators better.

What’s next?

Without doubt there are further opportunities for alignment of processes across the AHSN Network.   AHSNs have become a force for good in their support to HealthTech Connect and NHSX by bringing their learning into new processes and programmes. 

This will be further enhanced with the development of the AAC Innovator Portal and the discussions that are underway between agencies in the innovation landscape.  These discussions are helping agencies to recognise the scope, requirements and access to each other that will help provide a more seamless experience for innovators.

A key development will relate to the first bullet point above as described on HealthTech Connect

  • Supporting innovators to determine whether the innovation matches a need, and how widespread that need might be

Without doubt many innovators progress too far and at great personal cost to themselves and the use of innovation landscape resources, before confirming whether there is a clear opportunity that will lead to a sustainable business.  The introduction of more scrutiny of the companies / innovators value proposition (that combines the patient, clinician and organisational perspectives) will emerge and will enable resources across the innovation landscape to be better invested.  This is not new to AHSNs we only need to be more consistent in terms of when and how.

I believe AHSNs can also offer greater support to the Accelerated Access Collaborative.  Our insights and connections have helped, and will continue to, develop common process that find, filter and support innovations that stand to make most impact at whatever stage they are.  We have more to offer on identification of needs and later stage real world validation – a topic which I think I’ll need to cover in a separate blog!

Future support

2020 is shaping up to be an exciting and challenging year, and the developments outlined above will provide a strong foundation for the support offered to innovators into the coming decade.

The combined impact of the changes will see the AHSN Network being much more of an integral part of the innovation landscape, offering our innovators and more joined up, clear offer.

While the approach will clearly benefit the health tech industry, the ultimate beneficiary will of course be the citizens who will benefit from the amazingly innovative approaches that are being developed to improve our nation’s health and social care.

Other blogs in this series: