Internet Explorer is no longer supported by Microsoft. To browse the NIHR site please use a modern, secure browser like Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, or Microsoft Edge.

Innovation in healthcare: Why we must be a guiding light to the risk-takers

Published: 08 June 2021

Great innovation starts with a leap into the unknown, but early stage companies need mentorship and clear funding paths to ensure their products have a smooth landing, writes the NIHR’s new MedTech Industry Engagement Adviser Martin Hunt.

Entrepreneurship – a risky business

The best description I’ve heard to define an entrepreneur is someone who falls off a cliff and invents a parachute on the way down. This sounds scary – and it is – yet we have a tradition as a nation of producing successful inventors and innovators who found inspiration struck long before they hit the ground. 

Our MedTech sector has a particularly proud history; technologies we now take for granted in our health service – intraocular lenses, hip replacements and robotic surgery – were all invented here.

The challenges the NHS has faced during the pandemic have prompted a tsunami of innovations, from new ventilators and rapid diagnostics to digital and artificial intelligence interventions, and SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) play a vital role in this ecosystem. These companies are also extremely important to the nation’s economy, employing 23,000 people with a combined turnover of almost £6bn.

I’ve been fortunate to be part of this ecosystem for the last 22 years, first as a chief executive, and then as a chairman, non-executive director, investor and mentor to a wide range of dynamic companies in the UK and Europe. I was also NIHR Invention for Innovation Programme Director until the end of March this year.

Even angels have to clip wings

Having begun my career in multinational companies, I joined my first start-up in 1997 and it was not a happy debut. I came to realise after this experience that having access to someone with knowledge, experience – and ideally money – was crucial in building a company. Fortunately, my second start-up was successful, not least because my chairman had all the attributes necessary and was able to guide me as we developed TSL (Tissue Science Laboratories) into an international business on the London Stock Exchange.

Having sold the company, I was keen to use my experience to help other entrepreneurs navigate the minefield of getting a product to market. I’ve had the privilege of working with a wide range of people and businesses in the last 13 years and seen some amazing technologies.

As a mentor – or business angel – your job is providing down-to-earth guidance and support, not theoretical jargon, as well as helping source funding.

A lesson I learned early on is that funders fund people not products. Technology is great but is there a competent team involved? What experience do they have and what else do they need? There are sometimes some very difficult conversations to be had.

Typically, inventors want to be involved in every aspect and at every stage of the journey, but unfortunately that does not work and they need to bring in people with the relevant expertise. This always causes stress when they have to let go of the reins. However by far the most difficult conversation to have with an inventor is the one about an ugly baby – not all inventions are as beautiful as they are in the mind of their creator. I’ve had to break the news to people that the idea they’ve worked on for years and invested with their blood, sweat and tears isn’t going anywhere.

Engaging the MedTech sector with NIHR

The NIHR is a complex beast, especially when viewed from the outside. It’s a large and intricate organisation that can seem very daunting to a small company, but it has a remit to contribute to economic growth by supporting industry. As a funding programme director, I’ve been able to connect SMEs to other parts of the organisation, but we know there is work to do to make us much more visible, more accessible and easier with which to engage. We need to refine our offer to the MedTech industry so it is clear and concise. I want us to look beyond the traditional life sciences industry too, with sectors such as AI, genomics, data management and healthcare services becoming increasingly important in delivering care.

As MedTech Industry Engagement Adviser, I look forward to playing my part in this process. The NIHR has so much to offer to SMEs, not just crucial funding to bring technologies to market, but access to expertise and infrastructure in clinical evaluation, in study design, in patient engagement and much more.

This is a new role and I want to use it to assist innovative companies to navigate the array of services the NIHR can deliver, both in funding innovative research but also in wealth creation and productive collaborations with the NHS and universities. When SMEs need help I want our agency to channel the mentoring spirit of an angel investor and become their first port of call.

While we have that enviable national track record in invention and innovation, we are not as good at translating great leaps of creativity into safe and happy landings. Yet I believe a closer working relationship between the NIHR and MedTech sector can address this.

Being in an early stage company can be a scary experience – the highs are very high, but the lows are very low. Getting it right benefits the NHS, the economy and every single one of us.

Please feel free to contact me on LinkedIn or by email so that we can work at this together.

Martin Hunt, NIHR MedTech Industry Engagement Adviser.

Further information

NIHR blog