Interview Series: Richard Stubbs, CEO at Yorkshire and Humber AHSN

In the latest of our interview series, which sees us chat to influential figures from the UK health tech and innovation sphere, we caught up with Richard Stubbs, Chief Executive Officer at the Yorkshire and Humber Academic Health Science Network (AHSN).

Also, as a Vice Chair of the wider AHSN Network, Richard offers a unique combination of local, national and international perspectives and, in pre-pandemic times, his role regularly takes him across the length and breadth of one of the largest regions in the UK.

Here he tells us why Yorkshire and Humber should be proud of its burgeoning digital health, science and technology potential – and how this ties in with his interests in sustainable health innovation, the benefits of equality and diversity in the research sector, education and economic development.

Hi, Richard. Tell us about your background and how you came to join the Yorkshire and Humber AHSN

I’ve been in the NHS for nearly 20 years now. I came in via the BBC – I was in Manchester for a good few years, largely working in TV production and I did a little bit of journalism as well. It was a lot of fun. But I always wanted to do something more meaningful.

So, I came into the [NHS] through the Graduate Management Training Scheme. Even at the time, it felt like it was a real life-changer. I spent about five or six years in very typical operational jobs. And then I started to get much more involved in national roles and, unknowingly, create a path towards the AHSN.

That was really around getting involved in innovation for the first time. I was asked to create something called the NHS Innovation Challenge Prizes and that was all about trying to find the best stuff that was happening in the NHS in various disciplines and starting to reward people for being innovators. I also started to understand that we have a lot of cultural problems with innovation – not least of which is that we don’t really have incentives and rewards for people to go above and beyond their day job, to actually try something different and to take risks.

At the same time, I was creating something called NHS Global – the first government-led attempt to give a wider, facilitating body to help the NHS to export its knowledge overseas. I was really privileged to be able to go around the world…I spent a lot of time places like Libya, China and India.

It definitely taught me that although we sit here in the UK thinking of the NHS as this huge thing bestriding the globe, there’s an awful lot happening out there. The NHS is a small player in terms of global healthcare delivery and innovation. It was quite a humbling role, actually. I’ve always retained that international innovation role, which is almost unique in the health service.

When we created AHSNs, I always thought that that was a natural home for me. I spent a lot of time in my NHS England days trying to find the levers to pull that would make things happen…you feel as far away from levers there as you do in local frontline work. I thought AHSN was a real opportunity to do a proper, roll-your-sleeves-up job and implement change. I absolutely love it, it’s my dream job.

What does your role as CEO involve?

The things that come to AHSN you can almost never predict. Yorkshire is a massive place – we’ve got three excellent but very different integrated care systems. And we’ve got all our providers and CCGs. Relationship management is huge for us. It requires a significant investment of our time.

It’s a very varied place. I’ve led a number of pieces of work over the last 12-18 months that are fairly unique, I think. We’ve done a lot of work around ‘levelling up’ and a lot of work around diversity, for the AHSN network nationally.

Industry is here for the NHS and I think everyone I meet in an industry role is as passionate about helping to transform the NHS as those clinicians on the frontline. But, equally, industry gets very frustrated with the inability of the NHS to adopt and spread as fast as it ought to. When you’re sat there developing cutting edge technology…that frustration can come out. So, working with our industry colleagues, while representing the NHS position, is also a big part of the job.

But for us in Yorkshire, in particular, international [work] is still a large part of any day. Yesterday was a debrief with the Department for International Trade on the back of some work I’m doing for them to support the Thai government and health systems in Thailand to understand the capabilities we have in the UK around digital mental health solutions…how can we spread that knowledge to other countries? It gives us the ability to horizon-scan and to import innovation that we see out there, as well.

How would you describe your leadership?

I’d very much describe myself as a ‘place-based leader’. As I’ve come back to Yorkshire and come back to Sheffield…I do a number of roles outside my day job but, for me, there’s a template or a blueprint about how they all fit. I’ve got a role in education running a multi-academy trust, a role in a local economic partnership board, a role in an innovation park about regeneration, and a role with our universities.

But they all tell a story of health. I see health in all of those jobs – in my education role where I’m back supporting an academy where I used to go as a comprehensive pupil in a pit village. That’s a health job – helping people with skills, education and training is a health job. Everything comes back to innovation and improvement on health.

I want to help local jobs by helping our local SMEs to export to new territories. Likewise, I want to help my local patients by bringing in the best innovations from elsewhere and getting them embedded in Barnsley, in Leeds and in Skipton.

Bringing the NHS together with industry and academia…to have one single conservation. But equally knit together local businesses with international governance and other types of export opportunities – it’s all about doing some knitting!

You’ve mentioned your work on equality and diversity in innovation – tell us about this

The equality and diversity issues are something I’ve been involved with and active in during my time in the NHS. I recognise that in the NHS we spend quite a lot of time on equality and diversity accessibility in frontline roles and leadership, and on the visibility.

But, actually, I don’t think anybody has really looked hard at diversity within innovation and research areas. That is really important and why I’ve done a lot of work in this space. I’ve created a national programme and a campaign. In terms of what works, I’m really keen that with an AHSN network we have to start with ourselves. So, we created a series of pledges – accountability, for me, is a big part of this – and our pledges were my way of being accountable for delivering this work nationally.

The pledges we’ve got are about us as organisations, us as employers, and our staff. But they’re also about us and our work. When you start to think through the impact, positive or negative, that we have in our significantly influential role – to select innovations and innovators, to prioritise the services that are most in need of transformation – within that was this realisation. Unless we really committed to the challenges then we were actually in danger of exacerbating the issues rather than supporting them. Equality analysis impact on our work is absolutely key, being really certain about not creating a greater digital divide initially…to make sure our passion for innovation does not exacerbate health inequalities or lessen opportunities for people within the NHS.

One of the biggest things I could put my finger on is the importance of role models – recognisable champions. We’ve done a lot of work to identify and then give platforms to our diverse innovators. I think it’s really important for the 19% of our staff who identify as BME to be able to see people who look like them in roles…and to therefore, have a genuine belief that the work they’re doing above and beyond their day job, will actually carry them to where they want to go.

Also, re-broadcasting how the lived experience of our innovators with diverse backgrounds have helped explicitly or implicitly to improve their design thinking about their innovation. Whether that’s language access solutions or taking their lifetime lived experience of South East Asian communities and the obvious threat about diabetes but bringing that cultural knowledge into design thinking. For me it’s a real business case to say this is why we need to champion diversity with innovation. If we don’t ensure that our innovation pipelines, pathways and front doors are accessible to 19% of staff, that’s a fifth of our future ideas we’re potentially turning our back on.

And what about your work on ‘levelling up’?

I think there’s an awful lot we need to do ourselves, regardless of what national governments will or won’t do with funding or policy. For me, the first principle for Yorkshire and Humber is we need to be far more aware and prouder of our health tech and digital sectors.

There’s been some fantastic work done – a science and innovation audit from a few years ago that shows that 22% of all digital health jobs in the UK sit in the Leeds City Region. We’ve done our own research here that shows there are more life science companies in Yorkshire than in Oxford and Cambridge combined.

We have a phenomenal baseline from which we’re starting but we don’t have the culture or the experience of knowing how you take that potential set of assets and turn it into a world-beating, globally relevant sector. That is one of the aims we’re trying to achieve.

The whole ‘Made in Yorkshire’ aspect is really important to this. I do think that given all the digital health and med tech strengths that exist in Leeds, in the Sheffield City Region when you look at the wellness and prevention agenda, the east and work around green tech, we have everything we need here.

The health industrial revolution could start again in the North, and it could definitely start again in Yorkshire. We don’t sell it very well yet and that’s what I’m really trying to do. By making the offer and delivering the offer to the wider UK, but also internationally, we’re going to create the jobs that we desperately need here – which are going to reinforce and support and improve our overall health outcomes, as well.

There’s a virtuous cycle here that we could achieve if we powered up our life sciences companies that are already here, if we became a magnet for new growth…we’re going to become a crucible of the kind of health innovation that is going to transform the way we even conceive of health, never mind health services, for the next century.

Why not Yorkshire? We’ve got as much ability to stake our claim for this as any other region. We need to be louder; we need to be more confident – that’s exactly what I’m trying to do with my work.

Are there any local projects that you’re excited about?

What’s lovely, being somebody who works deeply in both Sheffield and Leeds, is I think when it comes to health innovation the offer is quite complementary. Leeds has its health tech and its digital health sectors but just down the road we’ve got our Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre (AWRC) in Sheffield Hallam University. It’s absolutely in the right space, at the right time, to advance our understanding of innovations that are going to help us to focus on the prevention agenda, the wellbeing agenda.

We are going to shift more from a health service that helps us when we’re sick, to a health service that helps us to remain well in the first place. The work that is happening at the AWRC is of significant global importance.

I chair the advisory board of the AWRC but I’m also a Board Director of the Sheffield Olympic Legacy Park, which is also the location for the AWRC. It is going to be at the heart of a resurgence for health and life sciences in the east end of Sheffield. We’ve got major and significantly advanced plans to build, alongside the AWRC, what we call the Centre for Child Health and Technology.

When that’s up and running, it will be one of the foremost centres in the world for looking at innovation around children’s health, which is not as simple as minimising adult versions of things for children, it’s about bespoke solutions. The way to keep us healthy is to start when we’re young.

I think that will be the starting gun of a wellbeing and population health revolution in Sheffield and our job in the AHSN is to make that spread as far as possible. We are in this global market now, and the footprint to work at is Yorkshire-level. If we’re going to be competitive globally, we need to work in partnership, and recognise that the Yorkshire pitch – or even the north of England pitch – that’s the right level to have the competition at.

Everything we talked about with the health and wellbeing agenda [also] has a green aspect to it. The secondary benefits of keeping people out of hospital, the secondary benefits of changing the way you can empower people to look after themselves through digital technologies in the home, the number of journeys in the UK that are health and care-related is phenomenal…they don’t need to be made if we have the right digital solutions in place. The green agenda is going to take these benefits from being secondary benefits and make them the primary benefit. The digitisation piece for me is where the biggest gains are to be made.