Interview Series: Anne Blackwood, CEO, Health Enterprise East

In our latest interview we spoke with Anne Blackwood, CEO at Health Enterprise East, to hear about some of the medtech innovations it’s supporting and to get Anne’s advice for early stage start-ups.

Can you tell me about you and your organisation?

My background is in science, I have a PhD in chemistry and I’ve had a long academic research career. About 20 years ago I moved to Cambridge to work for Cambridge Enterprise which is the universities’ technology transfer office; I worked there for around 5 years.

15 years ago, Health Enterprise East was started. It was the first time that the NHS had formally recognised that it had intellectual property or ideas from its own staff that might have some value; however it didn’t have the skills or the expertise to commercialise those ideas.

Health Enterprise East started with that remit of innovation and is very much committed to bringing new medtech ideas to market. We are not-for-profit so we are there purely to identify and support innovations which can improve healthcare and benefit patients.

Within the medical technology industry, there are SMEs which are very innovative but perhaps find it hard to sell to the NHS. What we do is: help SMEs understand what the market opportunities are for their products and services within the NHS or other healthcare systems; help them to understand who their customer is; explain how they can best evidence the benefits of their new technologies, because it is very easy to claim that a product improves outcomes or saves the NHS money, but it can be very hard to evidence such claims without insight into current clinical pathways and associated costs. We also help companies understand what a business case needs to look like for a new product or service to be adopted by the NHS by giving them access to our knowledge of how the NHS works.

Can you talk me through how your company has guided other companies?

One company we are currently working with is ‘Medic Bleep’, which is a secure real-time communication platform focused on replacing old pager technology still used in most of the NHS with a more secure real-time communication platform. Funded by the Eastern Academic Health Science Network, we are conducting a study at West Suffolk hospital, where we analyse the true impact of implementation, including: how do we measure the benefits of this instant messaging platform; does it save time for the staff, in terms of how quickly they can be reached and how quickly they can respond, and what does that do for the organisation’s efficiency, does it help improve patient outcomes by making faster decisions, therefore does that help reduce costs.

We are in the middle of carrying out that evaluation, but previous data has shown that on average a nurse can save 21 minutes per shift and a doctor can save 48 minutes per shift. That data was obtained very early on, so now we are conducting a much deeper study into the benefits.

Could you talk me through the Healios project that you are currently working on?

Healios is a way of carrying out mental health assessment and therapy via an online therapist, so a face to face service delivered by means of telehealth technology.

The work was commissioned by Eastern Academic Health Science Network which started in the spring and it is a 12-month project with the potential to roll-out Healios to children and young people who are in the youth justice system. Ultimately the key benefits that we are hoping to deliver, are that people who are under the youth justice system will be able to be assessed for an underlying mental health condition and will be able to gain access to therapy. Currently the waiting lists for either assessment or therapy are sometimes so long that the custody order the youth is under may elapse before they are seen by a therapist.

We are hoping that engagement with young people will be promoted through online methods compared to conventional face-face methods.

What have you been working on recently?

One of the things we’ve done over the last 18 months is to raise some funds to support the innovations that we fund in the NHS, as it can take a long time to find venture capital and management teams for each of the start-up companies that we want to create to launch a new technology that we think has potential.

We’ve raised 2 million pounds in the last 18 months to fund the Medtech Accelerator which allows NHS staff to apply for up to £125,000 to start up a technology idea. We have made 15 investments to date in a whole range of technologies, everything from devices which improve patient safety, for example in anaesthesia and critical care to technology that supports children with Glue Ear, a condition that affects hearing and can impact on the child’s development and behavior.

We’ve also raised 9 million pounds for a vehicle called ‘Medovate’ which is our later stage development partner. Medovate works with technologies that have demonstrated some proof of principle, including those that have been through the Medtech Accelerator, to develop them and take them through to market.

One such product is SAFIRA (Safer Injection for Regional Anaesthesia) which is a safer, end to end solution for carrying out regional anaesthesia, which is used to numb a particular region of the body prior to surgery.

Currently, this is a two-person procedure; an anaesthetist who holds an ultrasound scanner and uses this to guide the needle tip placement and their assistant who injects the anaesthetic solution at a required pressure. There is a risk that it is injected at high pressures, and research has shown that injecting above 20psi can cause serious nerve damage. This new product prevents harm to the patient by providing a cut-off when pressure builds above 18 to 20psi to prevent injections being administered at too high a pressure and collects data on the whole procedure providing evidence that the regional block was carried out safely. This product will come to market in Q1 next year and came from clinicians at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital King’s Lynn NHS Foundation Trust.

What advice would you give to an early start-up or someone with an initial idea?

Firstly, whether you are a clinician or a start-up in industry, one of the things you have to do really early on is understand what kind of problem you are trying to solve. Make sure you talk to enough people to really understand the clinical unmet need before you set about designing a new technology.

Once you’ve got an idea that you think is solving a problem, come back to those commercial-based questions. It’s easy to get excited and focus on the technology itself and not enough on the business case, when in fact really understanding who the buyer is in the system, how you are going to evidence benefit to them and what the business model is, is crucial when trying to bring a new technology to market.