A Tale Of Two Startups—Health Sector Innovation In A Time Of Crisis

When Prime Minister Boris Johnson was discharged from hospital after three days in intensive care, he wasted little time in lavishing fulsome praise on the treatment he received from Britain’s National Health Service (NHS). 

His words were doubtless heartfelt - Johnson had, after all, been admitted for treatment after an initially mild COVID-19 infection morphed into something more serious - but they also represented good politics. The Prime Minister would have been aware that even in more normal times, the NHS is, by far and away, Britain’s most popular public institution. And in the midst of the Coronavirus crisis, healthcare workers are the heroes and heroines of the hour. Thus, in describing the NHS as “unconquerable,” he was aligning himself with the mood of the nation while also talking up the ability of the service to deliver life-saving care in the most extreme of circumstances.  

But the NHS - like healthcare systems almost everywhere - is struggling to cope. It still faces shortages of personal protection equipment (PPE) and just at the moment admissions to hospital are expected to peak,  many key members of staff are stuck in self-isolation having displayed COVID-19 symptoms. The problem of staff absence is exacerbated by a continuing shortfall in testing to confirm whether or not individuals actually do have the virus. Meanwhile, more widely, it seems unlikely that Britain’s public health authorities will hit their testing target any time soon. Without widespread testing, it will be difficult to come out of lockdown.  Difficult times. 

So what role, if any, can entrepreneurs working in the healthtech sector play in helping the NHS - and indeed providers - cope with the pressures created by the pandemic? 

Now, this is probably not the time to bang the gong for Britain’s tech entrepreneurs. Politicians, managers and clinicians are engaged in a battle to get ahead of the COVID-19 outbreak and they don’t necessarily have the time or energy to actively bring new services and solutions on board at any kind of pace.   

That said, in areas such as testing, staff deployment and even the supply of equipment, a few private-sector startup companies may be able to provide genuinely useful and meaningful help. The question is, how easy is it for healthtech startups to engage with government and the NHS at this time?  

I spoke to two businesses that have had very different experiences.  

Sourcing Staff

Melissa Morris is CEO and co-founder of Lantum, a healthcare workforce management platform that matches clinical capacity with demand. Having managed to get a foot in Britain’s public health system by enabling primary healthcare providers to source locums, it is now also helping to manage staffing requirements for some of the tele-healthcare operations, clinics and treatment centers that are engaged in fighting the virus.   

As Morris explains, securing a foothold within Britain’s healthcare system wasn’t straightforward or easy, not least because the NHS is made up of a myriad of providers. And depending on the nature of the solution, procurement of third party products or services might be done at a national level or locally. In addition, regular restructuring of the health service can mean that it is difficult to keep track of where purchasing decisions are made. Morris cites her own experience. “I started my career working at NHS London,” she says. “That was expanded to become NHS England.” This change, she adds: “Made is impossible to pinpoint decision-makers.”  

Lantum decided to focus on primary care. “We went door to door talking to GP practices,” she says. “And as we began to build market share, we had more to talk about when we approached other potential customers. We built relationships.   

Today, Lantum has around 21,000 clinicians on its books and provides a service to 2,000 GP practices.  

According to Morris, it is become easier for tech-driven startups to get on the NHS radar screen. “Things have got better since the arrival of Matt Hancock as Health Secretary,” she says. “He started NHS X, a central hub that makes decisions on anything digital within the NHS.”  

Lantum also took part in NHS Innovate, an accelerator program. “That gave us exposure to senior figures,” Morris adds.  

In terms of the COVID-19 crisis, Morris says the relationships and links built up over time have enabled Lantum to supply not only staff management services but also vital data that is helping the NHS manage spikes in demand for clinicians. 

Sniffing Out The Virus 

Ancon Medical has, so far, had less success in building relationships within the NHS, despite developing a technology that could, according to CEO Wesley Baker, prove a game-changer in testing for COVID-19.  

Founded by Dr. Boris Gorbunov, Ancon Medical has created a device that can detect a range of illnesses by analyzing chemical biomarkers in human breath. The applications include the early detection of cancers, ebola and, crucially, Coronaviruses.   

“We did a trial in the US to detect influenza viruses, “ says Baker. “We were blown away. We detected six cases of Coronavirus.  We know we can do virus detection and we know we can detect Coronavirus.”   

Baker has spoken with Health Secretary Matt Hancock but, to date, the company hasn’t succeeded in persuading the U.K. or the E.U. to sanction trials. “However, we are getting traction in the U.S.,” Baker adds. And while Baker welcomes the creation of NHS X, so far it hasn’t helped Ancon,  

So what happens next? Baker says Ancon Medical’s tech offers a faster (results come back very quickly) and more cost-effective means to test for illnesses than conventional methods. It is also non-invasive, which may be a relief for those who currently face tests that involve swabs being inserted uncomfortably into the subject’s nostrils.  In a bid to get that message across, Baker has spoken to his local MP and the company has also been in contact with former government health ministers, who may be able to provide introductions. 

Ancon is playing a longer game. Once a disease has been profiled the device can be applied to a wide range of analysis tasks. As such, the company’s selling point extends far beyond the current crisis. There is, however, clear frustration at the progress to date, given that the company's technology has already been used by the miltary in areas such as germ warfare detection.  

Given the growing size of the healthtech startup community - both here in the U.K. and elsewhere - the chances are a whole range of useful solutions are waiting to be deployed. But the truth is that public healthcare systems are often not easy to access and where tests and treatments are concerned adoption tends to be (rightly) a lengthy process due to the tests required.  And truth to tell, while new solutions will be needed to face down the Coronavirus threat, the intensity of the crisis also limits the bandwidth that decision makers have at their disposal to make proper assessments.



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