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Front line of the NHS is fertile ground for the fresh thinking that benefits us all

Mike Lewis, joint Director of the NIHR Invention for Innovation (i4i) and SBRI Healthcare programmes, writes about his new role and how the UK has an opportunity to use the experience of healthcare professionals to become a creative leader in research science.

Necessity is the mother of invention

Whether the quote makes you think of Plato, the 1960s’ band formed by Frank Zappa, or Newton’s first law of motion, innovation and change don’t happen without rhyme, reason or force.

In today’s COVID-affected healthcare world, the force for change is stronger than in any Star Wars film, and the need for innovation has never been more critical. In this new world, we need to innovate and invent at an increasingly fast pace to cope with backlogs or delays to care, to make healthcare delivery more efficient and effective, and to ensure we provide access to innovations for everyone in need.

Life at the sharp end points the way

As Professor of Innovation in Life Science at the University of Birmingham, the questions I get asked the most are: “How do I/we/you drive innovation?” closely followed by: “Do you think this is a good idea?”

In more than 30 years working in pharma, diagnostics, digital, dental, devices and healthcare services businesses as an industrialist, it’s rare that novel approaches, innovative concepts and new ideas for doing things differently come from anywhere but the ground zero of truth, the front line of healthcare. Whether that is citizens making care providers aware of their unmet needs, or clinical, academic and operational staff just wanting to do things better, where the action happens is where the innovation occurs. Concepts and ideas may be transferable across arenas, but the insight to apply innovation comes from where care meets citizen.

The UK is often talked about as a centre of creativity but more so in the arts and culture than in science. In terms of patents, we rank 8th overall in total numbers granted, but 9th equal on a per capita basis, which for a developed G7 nation needs to improve. We can do better at turning ideas and novel approaches within healthcare into new products, pathways and tools. There is an opportunity to raise our game.

Clarity of purpose – and support

I’ve now taken up a new role as Programme Director of the NIHR Invention for Innovation (i4i) programme, a translational research funding scheme that supports medical devices, in vitro diagnostics and high-impact patient-focused digital health technologies. I’m also the new Director of SBRI Healthcare, an initiative by NHS England and NHS Improvement that supports small businesses to develop innovative technologies to meet the needs of the health service.

The purpose of the i4i and SBRI Healthcare programmes is clear in supporting small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), academics, and clinical staff with funding and expertise to push their concepts into products or services. There is a clear funding pathway that can be followed, but not always sufficient recognition of the support on offer.

Many applicants don’t realise the bulk of financial support available. Many don’t have access to a network to find partners, collaborators and professional support services that would strengthen their project and improve outcomes.

My immediate aims are to increase awareness of available funding, help potential applicants understand how to make the systems work for them, and to be transparent in giving constructive feedback. As long as the balance is right, feedback allows you to improve a project or application, and can make you realise that what you thought was the next wonder widget is probably not going to be viable.

The next steps

As we go forward, we need to look at encouraging innovations that go beyond tangible products to ideas that help adapt services, create process improvements and deliver efficiencies. Nobody could have seen the move to remote consultation and outpatient services, but that enabled our NHS to survive in the pandemic.

The health service is a people business and we need to innovate to help those that deliver care to do so more effectively and efficiently, improving outcomes and access while ensuring we don’t create or sustain inequalities. The benefits from improving an individual’s health go far beyond that person. They affect families, carers, employment and self-worth; they make us all better.

Having had my fair share of successful healthcare businesses, and some that just plain failed, there are lessons (and bruises) I can share as we try to lift our game in innovation. I am always happy to hear your thoughts on Twitter and LinkedIn and I look forward to making a difference.

Prof Mike Lewis, Programme Director of NIHR Invention for Innovation (i4i) and SBRI Healthcare programmes


The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care.