HTN got in touch with Tony Bowden, the Chief Executive of Helicon Health, to follow up on the health tech and medical research company’s entry in our first Digital Playbook.
A spin-out from University College London (UCL), originally founded on work done in the fields of health informatics and multi-professional education, Helicon has been navigating increased demand during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s all about people, process and technology”
Explaining his long-term association with the company, Tony said: “I arrived as a consultant – having spent much of my career in healthcare technology with large companies – and, actually, liked the company so much I was invited to become Chief Exec and invested in the company [as an angel investor].
“I work very closely with Professor David Patterson, the founder and a professor of cardiovascular medicine at UCL. He’s the genius, I just put his ideas into action. It’s a good working partnership.”
“David is still a practicing clinician, he runs clinics, and he teaches every week,” explained Tony. “So, he’s constantly getting feedback from the real world, so to speak. He’s also our Chief Medical Officer and also our Chief Clinical Safety Officer. As a professor, David has run hundreds of research projects, including randomised double blind clinical trials.”
This mix of skills and career paths is, according to Tony, a key part of Helicon’s appeal. “That gives the company an unusual combination of big company experience, small company experience, academic, research and medical practice,” he said, “it’s a rich mixture – so, we’re not just a technology company.”
Tony explained, that the neat label of being a ‘technology company’ doesn’t exactly fit the array of expertise and interests at Helicon. “If David ever hears that we’re described as a technology company [laughs]…he talks about socio-technical…but what he really means by that is that we’re always looking – not just at the technology but at the change that is inherent in that. It’s all about people, process and technology – probably in that order,” he said.
“Technology,” Tony explained, “from our perspective, is often the easiest part. Not to say it’s easy, but the people and process changes tend to be where the biggest challenges are. That inevitably includes education and communication – in a variety of different ways – whether that be for healthcare professionals, patients or other people involved in the change process.”
“Digital, drugs, data”
Telling HTN about the company’s digital clinical trials, Tony gave us some background on how they evolved from UCL. “Before the company was formed and before my time with the company, the department at UCL was focused on developing new models for electronic health records – particularly openEHR – the electronic health records standard, which was registered by that group with ISO. Also, the interoperability standard, called ISO 13606. Helicon was formed in order to act as an exemplar for those standards and for treating chronic conditions, so we’ve been research-led from the start, putting ideas that have been developed in theory and academia into the real world. I think they call that translational research,” he said.
“In a sense,” he added, “we run a company which provides systems in cardiovascular medicine, in particular, in and around stroke prevention. That’s where we started. But, increasingly, those technologies started to require interaction with multiple conditions and with data captured from sensors and devices.”
“Working with those technologies,” he continued, “led us into working with quite a wide variety of smart technologies. Along the way we won quite a substantial project, which we continue to work on – a major proof of concept for internet of things and smart technologies. It’s designed as a digital clinical trial, its principal objective is to determine whether monitoring people’s vital signs [means] you could intervene early, in order to avoid emergency admission to hospital,” he said.
This project has led the company onto a “slew of other similar and related projects,” which all involve the three d’s – “a digital technology, a drug and data – usually incorporating algorithms or machine learning in order to modify treatment,” Tony added.
“We think that combination holds the key for the delivery of personalised medicine and treatment. For the first time you can modify the dose and treatment, in line with that particular individual’s physiology and vital signs.”
“The appetite has grown”
“The market has changed during the pandemic. The uptake of digital technologies has grown, the appetite for changing of process has grown, because of necessity, and the money that’s come into the market because it’s now deemed an exciting place to work and invest. This is also creating strong demand for our expertise,” he said.
“We announced our ninth birthday at Helicon on 12 May. In that time, we’ve done a lot but we’re still a young company by comparison to many that have been in our market.”
Clients and collaborators, Tony mentioned, include Phillips Healthcare, and Teladoc Health. “I think they see we have a particular expertise,” he commented, although much of the work Helicon does is protected by non-disclosure agreements.
Speaking of trends and where he expects the company to go next, Tony commented: “I think we’ll see more of the same. Every project is different. But we do see a lot of new technologies wanting to find a place in the market. We see more money coming in from around the world to support those. And we see a really clear understanding that those technologies need to be to put through the regulatory pathways. We also see that clinical trials are essential – so we have formed partnerships with clinical trials organisations, which stands us in good stead.
“Other trends…in the UK because of the success of the vaccine, hopefully, I think we’re seen as a great place to innovate. I think Britain’s standing in the world has probably improved, particularly in and around med tech. I think that stands us in good stead as a small, aspiring to be big, company,” he said.
“I think the support we’ve achieved from central government, particularly the recognition by the Department for Industry and Trade – who selected Helicon Health within the First 100 – that is very important. That support is helping us to grow our business faster, both overseas and in the UK.”
“Innovation is a team game”
On what makes Helicon tick, Tony added: “I think partnerships. Innovation is a team game, and you have to be a very good team player. If you’re not, then you won’t get picked. Everything we do is in collaboration, often with several companies, and with the end customer. We relish opportunities to collaborate. Innovation is hard enough alone. So, for the implementation, deployment and scale up – everybody has to pull together in time and the same direction. If you think you’ve made the sale just because you’ve signed the license agreement or sold a piece of equipment, that’s only the start…the real success comes further down the track after a lot of hard work.”
Adding his final thoughts on the year’s challenges, Tony said: “Our biggest project got put on hold. Fortunately, we had sufficient momentum and that business was replaced and then some. We’ve been very fortunate. And we’ve grown fast during that period. The stars aligned and where one piece stopped, we picked up others. We’re very grateful.
“In light of that, we want to put back in. We want to start recruiting. We’re interested to talk to talented, new people – even if there isn’t a job immediately.”
To find out more about what Helicon Health is working on, visit heliconhealth.co.uk.