Nuala Foley is Industry Engagement Manager at KSS AHSN. Here she offers some tips for anyone wanting to set up a social enterprise to provide a product or service to the NHS.

I talk to a lot of people who have great products or services that could improve the care offered by the NHS. Not surprisingly, we see quite a few people who want to create a social enterprise organisation – i.e. a not for profit organisation – to take their idea forward for the greater good.

Often the social enterprise will have been formed by a clinical team who’ve identified a need and know exactly where their innovation will fit into the patient journey. This can be a real asset to build on; knowledge about what the NHS needs is invaluable and not all innovators start out with it.

Direct experience is not always the same as the bigger picture though. Need is not the same right across the NHS, so there’s still work to do to assess who could be interested in the product or service. Like anyone trying to develop and implement a solution across the NHS, it’s essential to research the size of the market, what other solutions exist and how difficult it will be to spread the innovation to new sites.

Even for a social enterprise that is not intending to make a profit, it’s vital to have a business mindset from the outset. This will help the social enterprise to get off the ground, be sustainable and for its solutions to reach their potential.

A factor that people often overlook is that if a social enterprise fails there can also be a cost to the NHS. Would the NHS need to find and replace the service with another provider? Could patients be harmed if the service is no longer provided or the product becomes unavailable?

Typically people setting up social organisations come from the perspective of addressing a need that they’ve identified from their clinical practice or family experience. It’s important in that case to recognise the extent of what they know and what they don’t, and to access the expertise they need.

That’s where AHSNs come in. We have experience and knowledge of the social enterprise sector and the NHS market. We can help look at things from a business point of view, identifying the opportunities and the potential pitfalls.

My advice if you’re thinking of setting up a social enterprise is hold on to your passion and your drive to make a difference, but recognise what you don’t know and turn to experts when you need to – and remember that the AHSNs are here and ready to help.

If you’re reading this and want to know more about how we connect social enterprises and the NHS to support the spread of effective innovation, please get in touch with me via