Pushing the boundaries of health innovation

July 19, 2019

Seeing how healthcare innovation dramatically improved the quality of life for her severely handicapped brother gave Dr Nicola Wesley, deputy chief executive at the Academic Health Science Network North East and North Cumbria (AHSN NENC), a passion for health innovation. Here, she talks about how the AHSN NENC is brokering collaboration between NHS, academia and industry across the region

Innovation is vital to the future sustainability of the NHS. The region boasts innovation-driven NHS organisations, academic institutions and healthcare businesses that are working to improve health outcomes, with the added benefits of creating jobs and generating wealth within the region and the UK.

The Academic Health Science Network North East and North Cumbria (AHSN NENC) acts as the crucial link between these partners to drive forward transformative innovations. By working closely with NHS Trusts and Clinical Commissioning Groups across the region, the AHSN NENC has an unrivalled understanding of the challenges faced by our healthcare system.

Dr Nicola Wesley, deputy chief executive at the AHSN NENC – who was instrumental in establishing the organisation in the region in 2013 – says: “We have worked incredibly hard over the last six years to develop meaningful relationships across the health and life sciences community. This allows us to reach into different parts of the system, whether that’s by bringing in expertise from industry or academia, to form partnerships that enable us to get things done quickly and at scale.

“An important element of our work sees us act as the link between the NHS and the private sector. We understand how difficult it can be for companies to bring their innovations to the NHS but, with our support, we can help to make that process more streamlined.

“The breadth of innovative and trailblazing life sciences companies based in the region never ceases to amaze me, and this presents a real opportunity for the NHS. We have worked with some fantastic businesses, from start-ups to multinationals, to help them access the NHS and it’s incredibly rewarding to see the benefits this brings to patients and the economy.”

Funding from NHS England, NHS Improvement and the Office for Life Sciences ensures the AHSN NENC is well-placed to deliver national initiatives in a way that supports regional priorities.

In the last year, the AHSN NENC has supported 115 companies with 134 innovations. A recent survey showed that AHSN NENC support resulted in an estimated £1.5 million investment secured and this has contributed to the creation of 17 jobs and safeguarded a further 15.

Gaining access to the NHS and social care markets can be a daunting prospect for businesses. However, the AHSN NENC acts as an honest broker between them and the NHS within the region to simplify the process for both parties.

The AHSN NENC, whose chair is Dr Arnab Basu MBE, chief executive of Kromek Group plc, supports the adoption of innovations that have the potential to transform the lives of patients and stimulate the economy. This support spans from identifying unmet needs across the NHS, providing IP support, real-world validation, and spread and adoption of innovations.

Innovators receive bespoke assistance from the AHSN NENC at every stage of the innovation lifecycle via its Innovation Pathway initiative.

Nicola explains: “We’re here to help bridge the gap between industry and NHS by bringing both sides together to broker these important interactions, which are essential for both the development of new treatments and pathways and to maintaining a healthy life sciences sector.”

Nicola has personal experience of how innovation within healthcare can transform the lives of patients and their families. Her older brother Steven was born with a range of complex needs, including severe cerebral palsy, epilepsy and asthma, and Nicola’s parents were told he was unlikely to live beyond the age of two.

Steven defied medical expectation to live to the age of 20 before he sadly passed away. However, his complex needs meant that for much of his younger years he was unable to enjoy childhood activities such as going to the park and being outdoors, as the medical equipment he required had to be plugged into the mains.

In the early 1990s, when Steven was around 12, a consultant at Bishop Auckland General Hospital provided two innovative pieces of equipment that were being trialled by paramedics at the time – these were a portable suction machine and a portable nebuliser inhaler. This equipment changed family life forever, enabling Steven to be much more mobile.

“Thanks to that savvy consultant, family life changed forever because we could take my brother to the park, which was something we couldn’t do previously. This first-hand experience is why I became so passionate about healthcare and innovation. Innovation doesn’t always just affect the patient; it affects the wider family. For us, it meant that Steven could experience things that he’d never done before and, as his younger sister, so could I,” explains Nicola.

She adds: “Myself and the rest of the AHSN NENC team are in a privileged position where we see the benefits these innovations bring to patients and their families.”

Nicola believes the region has all the assets to position itself as a leader within the life sciences industry thanks to the outstanding healthcare system, world-leading clinical research, business support for health and life science companies and the high-quality education offer. The AHSN NENC celebrates this with its annual Bright Ideas in Health Awards, which is running for the 16th year. There are eight categories open to health innovators and the deadline for entries is July 31.

Nicola concludes: “There’s no debating that the North East has a thriving life sciences industry. We have so much to offer as a region and by working collectively to share expertise, ideas, resource and investing in the future, we can continue to push the boundaries of innovation to improve the health and economic prosperity of the region for many more years to come.”

Academic Health Science Network North East and North Cumbria
For more information on the AHSN NENC, visit: www.ahsn-nenc.org.uk

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