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A health technology milestone amid a global pandemic: reflections on the first year of the HealthTec Cluster

“When the HealthTec Cluster launched a year ago, nobody could have predicted that it would reach its first milestone in the midst of a health crisis,” commented Phil Carvil (HealthTec Cluster Development Manager, Science and Technology Facilities Council) on the week that marked the first ‘anniversary’ of the HealthTec Cluster, hosted at Sci-Tech Daresbury.

A space physiologist by background (as well as a trained Barista!), Phil has led the development of the HealthTec Cluster since its inception. Driven by his strong commitment to collaboration and, of course, coffee the cluster has the vision of supporting cutting-edge R&D, commercialisation and the growth of technology solutions that can empower citizen health and wellbeing.

“Throughout the last year businesses involved with the cluster have achieved incredible things in an effort to address our health system challenges; from developing new technology to reduce the risks associated with nasogastric tube placement, to testing our next generation of cancer therapy, they are delivering solutions that will drastically improve people’s lives,” remarked Phil.

Welcome to the coffee shop

Whilst hosted at Sci-Tech Daresbury, the HealthTec Cluster works to drive collaboration and connectivity across the North West and beyond. Over the last year, the cluster has supported more than five trade missions, built a strong community through the bi-monthly ‘HealthTec Huddle’ networking events, and worked cross-sector with its counterpart HealthTec, Space and EnergyTec Clusters at Harwell Campus in Oxfordshire to ensure not only a regional but national, impact. Even at a very local level, this influence is clear to see, with more than 40 health and life science organisations now based at Sci-Tech Daresbury, equating to a 15% growth in the sector on campus this year.

So what is the cluster? As a former Barista there’s clearly no better way to explain than through a coffee shop analogy, “The innovation landscape is so rich and diverse for me, it’s like going to a coffee shop. When you walk in you have so many options on that board. You likely have an idea of what you are looking for, it could be access to finance, it might be understanding more about a technology, a critical friend to sound an idea off, or a route into an organisation. The cluster acts like that reliable shop with a board full of a range of different opportunities. As what you are looking for develops and changes over time, the cluster community allows you to connect, share and develop these insights. The ‘over time’ part is important because whilst you could try all those options in a single visit, you’d likely need a lie down after.”

These connections allow companies and organisations to operate more flexibly and productively; accessing new technology, information or skills, which would otherwise need to be developed independently.

Reacting to coronavirus

Government commitments of support for the development of health technologies to address everything from disease detection to health management continue to grow and the wide-ranging impact of the sector has been explicitly highlighted in the UK response to coronavirus. From the accelerated adoption of remote consultation techniques through telemedicine to tracking and tracing regimes utilising mobile app technology, the pandemic has illustrated the importance of technology in addressing key health challenges.

“These past few months have been tough, for some, it has meant a complete rethink of the business model and operation, for others a pivot on their research and innovation endeavours and for many all hands on deck. Throughout though it has been astounding to hear how the sector has been responding and there has been some incredible achievements,” Phil commented.

Businesses and organisations at Sci-Tech Daresbury and across the HealthTec Cluster community have been working tirelessly to ensure that this wealth of knowledge and expertise can be utilised effectively in the current crisis.

Arcis Biotechnology, an R&D-led company with expertise in the development of a wide range of fast sample preparation technologies, has been working with onsite neighbours Perfectus Biomed, a leading Contract Research Organisation (CRO) that provides microbiological testing services, to develop a coronavirus RNA extraction research kit to rapidly prepare respiratory tract specimens for molecular testing. Within five minutes of a swab being taken from a patient, the sample is ready for diagnostic testing, reducing reliance on highly expensive and prohibitive laboratory equipment, and increasing the speed at which tests can be conducted and treatment administered.

A range of other companies at Sci-Tech Daresbury have been focussing on digital solutions to the impacts of COVID-19. ORCHA, a healthcare app reviewer, has been building a COVID-19 App Library to ensure easy access to quality digital health at home. They recorded in their recent quarterly update a staggering 6500% increase in app recommendations! At the other end of the pandemic timeline, Intouch With Health is supporting NHS Trusts to tackle the escalating elective surgery backlog – by giving free 3-month access to their synopsis home platform, enabling patients to complete pre-operative health questionnaires remotely.

Further afield, the innovation community across the North West has been developing a wide range of inventive solutions. 3D Life Prints, in collaboration with Alder Hey Children’s NHS Foundation Trust, has designed ‘The Distancer’, a small 3D-printed handheld device worn by healthcare professionals, to help reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 in hospitals. With space for an ID card, a hook to open door handles and a flat end to push doors open, the device allows touch-free movement through a building. In Greater Manchester, Safe Steps is supporting more than 500 care homes to track COVID-19 cases, enabling NHS teams to prioritise their response and resources where they’re needed the most.

Whilst these may only represent a handful of examples of the breadth of work being carried out by companies and organisations throughout the HealthTec Cluster community, in indeed a very specific circumstance, it acts as an effective illustration of the strength and benefits of regional and national connectivity in enabling innovation and rapid response.

Looking ahead

The next year will continue to see the focus placed on maximising these connections, with particular emphasis on addressing key sector challenges. In addition, the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in previously unanticipated needs within health technology, and recovery will be a central theme of activities; sharing learning from the community’s experiences, enabling the development of new innovations, and building stronger connections between health and research systems.

“To borrow a quote from Einstein “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them” – and there is no doubt that this period will have altered our way of thinking. I do see particular opportunity in the coming years to delve into the overlap between sectors such as Space to really test this thinking, and clusters are a great way to enable that conversation, of course, over a coffee,” Phil finished.

To find out more about the HealthTec Cluster or to get in touch with Phil Carvil directly, visit the website.