Many innovators are keen to confirm, as early in their journey as possible, what evidence is required to ensure uptake of their innovation. In this blog Rob Berry, Head of Innovation at Kent Surrey Sussex Academic Health Science Network (KSS AHSN), suggests why innovators need to be sure about what will generate confidence not just evidence and how AHSNs support innovators on their journey.

Scale of AHSN Network engagement with innovators

For the last two years AHSNs have tracked our engagement with innovators (companies of almost size with products of any type and at any stage). The numbers show support from our network for somewhere in the order of 2,500-3,000 companies a year, many with more than one product (or service). This support is typically one-to-one, reflecting both the uniqueness of the innovations and commercial sensitivities. 

Known unknowns

With that scale of operation, AHSN commercial teams (those that deal with innovators from first contact onwards) are familiar with the range of questions likely to be asked of them and have a relatively consistent approach to the questions they ask of an innovator.

Our individual and collective years of experience, backed up by research such as that by Trish Greenhalgh, means that we know what to ask innovators to get a sense of how we might help. Although AHSNs are sometimes seen by some as working differently, this is more likely to reflect that we may ask questions in a different order. All of our questions relate to the same set of “known unknowns”.

How to “speak NHS”

The innovator journey would be much more predictable if it could be set out at an early stage and simply worked through. It would also be far easier for AHSNs to recommend next steps and describe the support they can provide. However, the first challenge is usually far more fundamental. Before any support can be recommended, we need to clarify what the innovator has – the value proposition – that speaks to the needs of the buyer, not just the patient or user. For many reasons, being able to “speak NHS” and convey what value(s) their proposition offers to a potentially diverse range of buyers is challenging. For some AHSNs, helping tackle this challenge will be the first things we do to support an innovator. 

The NHS may be national but it’s definitely local too

Recognising the nature of the NHS and how decisions are made, and that the NHS is highly varied, is key. The portfolio of challenges that a service, organisation or location face at any moment in time, the infrastructure an innovation may relate to, the scale of operation, and funding available, to name but a few factors, may all be different.

With such a range of variables, no one can be certain how many organisations will respond positively to a particular innovation. While AHSNs can help to bridge the gap between industry and the NHS, some degree of market research will be necessary. When done well, that market research will also indicate what a buyer will need to see before they would be sufficiently convinced to purchase an innovation. But before market research can be undertaken and perceptions gathered, a value proposition will need to set out the problem that the innovation addresses, how the intervention (and not just the technology) will work and what benefits (and not just the outcomes) a buyer / user / patient can expect, and when.

Not just technology, but sustainable businesses

For good reasons, the NHS will want to know that their future supplier has a sustainable business and will be able to continue to supply and or service their organisation over coming years. If the innovator hasn’t worked out how to reach a sustainable position, considering the variation in the NHS and or opportunities in other markets, they are higher risk to work with and support from an AHSN perspective let alone an NHS buyer. Identifying whether or not an innovation will bring about a sustainable business and how an innovator will survive the journey is a second area in which AHSNs can support innovators. 

Towards success

As an innovator generates bit by bit the evidence to satisfy safety or regulatory requirements, to demonstrate clinical outcomes and cost effectiveness, they will become more convinced of the potential of their innovation. The sense of success will convince the innovator that the opportunity to scale up is close; usually much closer than the buyer thinks it is. 

In the same way that the innovator will be keen to bring about patient and or operational effectiveness and efficiency, to support their business sustainability, so the NHS buyer will wish to ensure the safety of patients, its operational effectiveness and efficiency and the organisations sustainability. Knowing that benefits are often not achieved to the level or in the time frame expected, or sustained or within the costs indicated, many buyers and users are far more convinced when they can see, touch, even smell what the innovator is proposing and hear from a peer (not the innovator) what they really think. This will give them the confidence they are looking for. Then they may look at your evidence.

A demonstrator site or three, well written case studies that validate that the benefits outlined in the value proposition can be realised in real world settings will accelerate an innovator towards scaling up and eventual success.

Where to start?

Wherever you are in your journey, whatever your technology is, it is never too late to have your value proposition checked over. If you’re unclear how to “speak NHS”, or how to understand what the NHS is telling you, and want to know a bit more, then please attend one of our 90-minute online, fully subsidised, market insight briefings. We will run through some of the more common “known-unknowns” so that you know what to look out for and can develop an even better value proposition.

From there on, our focus will be on getting to scale up, via a real-world validation. You will need to generate the evidence to get you there and AHSNs will support those companies whose innovations best match local and national priorities. 

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