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How collaboration will fuel health tech growth in 2021

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A collaborative ‘Huddle’ event at the North West HealthTec Cluster.

The North West HealthTec Cluster is hosted by Sci-Tech Daresbury and supports growth in the Liverpool City Region, the North West, and beyond, as Dr. Phil Carvil explains for HT World.

The North West HealthTec Cluster was launched in June 2019 as a joint initiative between the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC, part of UK Research and Innovation) and the Innovation Agency (The Academic Health Science Network for the North West Coast).

It was created to better enable the awareness of the resources and capabilities from academic, public and private organisations across the region and connection between these and innovators to support collaboration.

Working with its now nearly 50 stakeholder organisations it has been pivotal in boosting the health technology ecosystem and the strong collaborative capacity that resides within the North West by growing these connection points both within but also between regions and sectors.

As an example as one of the few of its kind in the UK, the cluster operates in close synergy with its counterpart hosted at the National Science Innovation Campus at Harwell in Oxfordshire. Together, clusters support a national vision for cutting-edge R&D and the growth of solutions that can empower citizen health and wellbeing.

This regional cluster is hosted at the National Science and Innovation Campus (NSIC) of Sci-Tech Daresbury, situated in the Liverpool City Region.

The campus, through its legacy of world-leading scientific expertise and location of national technological assets operated by STFC’s Daresbury Laboratory has provided the HealthTec Cluster with a strong foundation to enable its regional, national and even international connections to organisations supporting and/or working in the health and life science sector.

The campus itself is home to over 40 organisations operating in the sector and in the first years since the cluster launched, the campus has seen a near 15% growth in sector activity on site, with organisations tapping into the exceptional scientific and networking opportunities afforded through the campus and the wider region.

The importance of collaboration in driving growth and innovation has also been evidenced by over 50% of campus companies engaging with universities on a variety of research activities, as well as developing internal customer/supplier relationships.

It has been a pleasure to lead the development of the HealthTec Cluster since its inception. The goal of the cluster model has always been to grow this home for world-leading research and technology in the UK working closely with regional partners, develop new collaborative opportunities and to help transform the way we currently think about healthcare.

Strengthening the organic connections between research and innovation and hubs is key in reaching this goal. Whilst hosted by the Sci-Tech Daresbury campus, the HealthTec Cluster operates across the North West and beyond.

This has been achieved by linking to the Local Enterprise Partnerships in the region, other leading innovation campuses, the universities and institutes, health partnerships and networks, national bodies and regulators and industry membership networks. The cluster has built a strong community through its bi-monthly ‘HealthTec Huddle’ events, enabled cross-sector conversations working with other counterpart clusters such as the Space Cluster at Harwell Campus and supported more than five trade missions to ensure not only a regional, but national impact.

When I look at and describe this research and innovation landscape it is so rich and diverse that for me, it’s like when you walk into a coffee shop. There are so many opportunities on the board. You’ll likely have an idea of what you are looking for.

It could be access to finance, it might be understanding more about a technology, a critical friend to sound an idea off, or a route into an organisation. As what you are looking for develops and changes over time, the cluster community allows you to connect, share and develop these insights. But whilst you could try all those options in a single visit, you’d likely need a lie down after.

This approach in the cluster to strengthening the organic connections between organisations better allows companies and organisations to operate more flexibly and productively; accessing new technology and insights, information or skills, which would otherwise need to be developed independently.

Throughout this last year, businesses across the region have achieved incredible things in the effort to address our health system challenges; from developing technology to reduce the risks associated with nasogastric tube placement, to addressing key challenges relating to COVID-19, to testing our next generation of cancer therapy; they are delivering solutions that will drastically improve people’s lives.

Government commitments of support for the development of health technologies to address everything from disease detection to health management continue to grow, and the wide-ranging impact of the sector has been explicitly highlighted in the UK’s response to coronavirus. From the accelerated adoption of remote consultation techniques through telemedicine, to tracking and tracing regimes utilising mobile app technology, the pandemic has illustrated the importance of technology in addressing key health challenges.

These past few months have been tough. For some, it has meant a complete rethink of business models and operation, for others a pivot on their research and innovation endeavours and for many, an all hands on deck approach. Nonetheless, despite the challenges, it has been astounding to hear how the sector has been responding and there has been some incredible achievements.

Businesses and organisations at Sci-Tech Daresbury and across the stakeholder community in the HealthTec Cluster have been working tirelessly to ensure that this wealth of knowledge and expertise can be utilised effectively in the current crisis.

The Medicines Discovery Catapult, in partnership with industry and academia, has helped advance the UK’s COVID-19 testing capacity through launching the UK Lighthouse Labs. Companies have been developing new diagnostic solutions, such as Arcis Biotechnology.

An R&D-led company with expertise in the development of a wide range of fast sample preparation technologies, Arcis worked with its onsite neighbour, Perfectus Biomed, a leading Contract Research Organisation (CRO) that provides microbiological testing services, to develop a coronavirus RNA extraction research kit to rapidly prepare respiratory tract specimens for molecular testing.

Liz Ashall Payne, CEO of ORCHA

ORCHA, a leading national and international healthcare app reviewer, has built a COVID-19 App Library to ensure easy access to quality digital health at home. In the early days of lockdown, they recorded a staggering 6500% increase in app recommendations.

Intouch With Health has been supporting NHS Trusts to tackle the escalating elective surgery backlog through access to their synopsis home platform, enabling patients to complete pre-operative health questionnaires remotely, and in the safety of their homes.

Whilst these initiatives may only represent a handful of examples of the breadth of work being carried out by companies and organisations in the region and in a very specific circumstance, they are an effective illustration of the strength and benefits of regional and national connectivity in enabling innovation and rapid response.

Even through this pandemic there has continued to be strong interest from companies from beyond the region and UK who are interested to relocate and access the ecosystem here. For example, Factorytalk, a software and services company based in Bangkok which specialises in Industry 4.0 solutions for pharmaceutical manufacturing – also known as Pharma 4.0 – set up its UK offices in the region.

While trade missions are unable to take place currently, we’ve continued to undertake one on one virtual meetings with international companies to support their discovery journey into the UK.

2021 will continue to sharpen the focus placed on maximising these connections to address key sector challenges.

The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in previously unanticipated needs within health technology, and recovery will be a central theme of activities; sharing learning from the community’s experiences, enabling the development of new innovations, and building stronger connections between health and research systems.

Going forward, it is our ambition to continue to ask how we can better support collaboration both in and between sectors, enabling growth for companies in the region, while continuing to grow this fantastic community.

Dr. Phil Carvil is HealthTec Cluster development manager at the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

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