Cross-country collaboration vital to shape the UK into a life science superpower

Paula Rogers-Brown, Head of Communities & Ecosystem Engagement, Connect: Health Tech, shares her perspective on the challenges facing the UK health tech community and how with collaboration and a unified voice, we can overcome these to build the UK into a thriving health tech hub and life science superpower.


What are the major challenges facing health tech businesses in the UK?


The UK’s health tech ecosystem is rather fragmented, stemming from a positive trend for organic growth. As a consequence, this has fostered poor interconnectivity. It is well known that interdisciplinary collaboration is key for the success of most innovative industries, and this is just as true for health tech. To facilitate more collaboration, we need to overcome this fragmentation and build more connections. Locally, removing siloes will help complementary teams interact, but this should not be done at the expense of pan-regional collaboration as we need to harness the wealth of expertise available throughout the UK for long term growth.

At the interface of health, technology, engineering and AI, health tech faces its own language barriers: clinicians are unfamiliar with common tech terms and technology specialists are untrained in medical terminology. This challenge is not insurmountable, but it is easy to underestimate the time frames needed to overcome this and work well together on product development and commercialisation.

Another challenge is a lack of knowledge around entrepreneurship in the research community. There are incredible scientists and clinicians with potentially transformational ideas, but without a knowledge of routes to progress their innovation, and an understanding of aspects like IP, commercialisation, funding and regulation, their ideas may never reach the public. It is therefore vital that we share knowledge and resources about where these entrepreneurs can start, what do they need and where can they find more information?

To improve navigation across the ecosystem, Connect: Health Tech proactively aids these connections, collaborating with innovation hubs like Discovery Park, and forming a national network where ideas and information can be shared.


What do we need to do to support the UK health tech industry?


We need to build an industry with a porosity in knowledge exchange. Fellowships could be a good way to encourage this area – not just academic but industrial too – as they can be used to foster knowledge exchange between industries and different locations.

It’s also important that we invest in the infrastructure to develop both physical and digital communities that support these connections. Events and in-person connections form a cornerstone of all collaboration. Science parks like Discovery Park provide an ideal environment to bring together a diverse mix of stakeholders including academia, clinical innovators and industry for knowledge exchange and interdisciplinary innovation. We’ve also learned over the past few years that online communities can provide significant additional benefits, allowing these collaborations to continue between different locations in between these events, enabling existing ideas to develop and new opportunities to be identified.

I would also draw attention to the visibility of role models within the health tech community. We have an incredibly diverse population with different healthcare experiences and health technology has the potential to make real changes for everyone, but if the diversity of the population is not reflected in those developing innovative research and technologies, then solutions will have a limited market. To build this diversity into research and leadership teams, we need to highlight role models that are already there – after all, you can’t be what you can’t see.


Investment and development have often been targeted towards certain areas of the UK. Are there risks in focusing development within specific regions?


Co-location is a really powerful tool when it comes to sharing ideas and building a rich talent pool, but this shouldn’t be done at the expense of collaboration elsewhere. The UK punches above its weight scientifically. We are a relatively small country geographically and with the right networks, both regionally and nationally, we could strengthen our impact and attractiveness.

Another important consideration is ensuring research and innovation development is inclusive. Different regions within the UK have different demographics and we need to understand and incorporate that into our recruitment strategies. There is no one route for developing a new innovative med tech device, for example, and the health tech ecosystem needs to embrace employees from all backgrounds. That way we can be sure we are not missing opportunities to harness and develop talent on our doorstep which can lead to rich innovations we can all benefit from.

Science and research parks have a really important role in doing this as they are directly embedded in their local communities and can therefore work closely with schools, colleges and universities to promote STEM, the opportunities available, and develop their own talent pipeline.

As an example, Discovery Park provides a thriving community to build connections and exchange knowledge, including a Skills Hub that brings together the expertise of Kent Universities, colleges and industry to help businesses collaborate to overcome skills shortages. Adding in an online collaboration hub to these can extend those opportunities across the four nations – and internationally.


The NHS is a unique resource for the UK, what are the opportunities that this can bring?


At Connect: Health Tech, we support clinician-led innovation. The UK’s clinician base is a unique resource that has a truly in-depth understanding of the healthcare needs of our population. Through our community and digital platform, we are proactively working with clinicians to develop a suite of resources that supports their innovation journey. Supporting innovation from this community to ensure we are at the forefront of producing solutions that meet actual needs is really important to us at Connect: Health Tech.

Working with local NHS teams can be a huge asset to technology developers to ensure their technology is solving a genuine need. It can also result in superior product development by incorporating relevant data sets and ensuring optimisations are made with input from clinicians and patients alike. Research campuses like Discovery Park leverage relationships with their local NHS Trusts to facilitate collaborations with industry to drive purposeful innovation.


What other opportunities do you see for the UK health tech industry in the next five years and how can we help to deliver these?


Pan-regional collaboration is a fantastic opportunity that we are seeing a real shift towards, and we need to continue to develop this to see more of this kind of collaboration at scale. We’ve already seen the formation of a cross-regional innovation cluster between Cambridge and Manchester which will facilitate the sharing of expertise between these two knowledge-rich communities. Building relationships with other knowledge exchange hubs like Discovery Park allows further development of pan-regional collaboration to unlock even more opportunities for growth.

I was delighted that the government recently accepted all the recommendations from the independent review of university spin-out companies, including providing greater understanding of entrepreneurial skills in the academic setting. There is huge potential still to be realised from our wealth of successful academic institutions and we need to develop this potential by providing support, advice and training for founders wishing to commercialise their discoveries. Initiatives like the Eagle Lab at Discovery Park can provide fantastic support for fledgling businesses through programmes, mentorship and investor networking.


What do we need to do to ensure these opportunities aren’t missed?


We need to invest! The opportunities are clear, but they require investment, and these investments require some risk-taking on experimental technologies. We also need to invest in developing the right infrastructure, taking our communities with us through enablers like Connect: Health Tech, and building strong foundations for growth, as creating a solid health tech ecosystem reduces the risk of missed opportunities.


Paula Rogers-Brown

Head of Communities & Ecosystem Engagement, Connect: Health Tech

University of Cambridge

Paula leads on the strategic development and management of Connect: Health Tech, an interdisciplinary community of practice for health tech professionals bringing together a diverse range of stakeholders to build and integrate a thriving business and enterprise community.

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