Healthcare is an increasingly important area for innovation. New technological advancements, deeper understanding of major diseases and breakthroughs in cutting-edge research, as well as more investment for entrepreneurial endeavours in this space, has meant that it has never been easier to start a health or medical-related business to improve people’s lives and wellbeing.
But, as many entrepreneurs who work in this space know, healthcare is one of the toughest sectors to break into especially as an early-stage startup business.
There are a number of barriers and obstacles to understand. Ultimately, healthcare is about improving the lives of people, of patients, which means that systems have been put in place to protect their interests. Innovating and therefore changing how things are done, how care is delivered, how treatments are done, can be difficult, but highly rewarding if done right.
We had the pleasure of bringing together diverse viewpoints from digital healthcare business Babylon Health, the NHS’s Imperial College Health Partners, and a medical technology startup Affect AI to discuss how to innovate in healthcare.
Tim Allan — Senior Design Director, Babylon Health
Shakti Dookeran — Innovation Delivery Lead, Imperial College Health Partners
Woochan Hwang — CEO & Founder, Affect AI, using voice-based bio-markers to better objectively monitor depression. Affect.AI has been part of MedTech Super Connector, a MedTech accelerator we have been honoured to design and run (read case study here).
It was a lively discussion with lots of real examples and below are the top five things we learned.
1. Understand that changing ways of working will take time
Healthcare organisations and professionals have worried less about technology and more about patients, which means they often still work manually with processes that were put in place many years ago.
Changing what people are used to is tough. As Woochan of Affect AI put it, some doctors have said to him “That’s great, but how long will it take for me to learn how to use it?” when he showed them his technology. There are well-established ways of doing things, and procedures, in place.
For any innovator, it’s important to fully understand why they are done like this, how healthcare professionals behave and think and what is the ultimate goal they are trying to achieve in order to be able to design a product that they will use and keep using.
2. Think creatively about how to meet clinicians and healthcare professionals
Many entrepreneurs and startups in the healthcare space say that one of the hardest things is being able to speak to enough clinicians, doctors, patients and other healthcare professionals, in order to validate their thinking and test their ideas. This is part of an extremely important part of our venture building process, known as Customer Discovery interviews.
So how do the successful ones overcome this challenge? A very useful piece of advice from Tim Allan, Senior Design Director of Babylon Health, is to speak with the staff running Quality Improvement programmes at hospitals and clinics who are often clinicians themselves. These Quality Improvement programmes are designed to engage patients and the public in a dialogue about what can be done better for patients and care experiences, which is a great point of entry for any startup or entrepreneur looking to find the right stakeholders to engage with.
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3. Find help in navigating the healthcare ecosystem
The healthcare landscape can be quite complex and difficult to navigate around. Understanding the role of different organisations and stakeholders, and how they interact with each other, is crucial for creating a product with a clear need, and a business with a strong value proposition.
Organisations such as the Academic Health Science Networks specialise in helping entrepreneurs and innovators navigate the healthcare landscape, signposting them to the relevant stakeholders. Shakti Dookeran, Innovation Delivery Lead for Imperial College Health Partners (one of the 15 Academic Health Science Networks that NHS England setup for this purpose), also helps healthcare startup businesses to prepare by reviewing their offerings for the healthcare sector.
4. Understand the business case and commercial incentives
For any startup, it’s important to understand the commercial dynamics of the system, and be able to craft a clear business case for why organisations should collaborate with or buy from you.
As Shakti Dookeran, Innovation Delivery Lead for Imperial College Health Partners said, “The NHS is interested in mainly two things, better patient care and outcomes, and cost savings.” Understanding exactly how your product will help achieve these outcomes, quantitatively with evidence, is a winning formula. While we appreciate that this might require pilots or field trials, during our venture building experience we have seen how combining theoretical models and data with lean experiments on the field might be of enormous help. For example, see how we helped a US startups raise $4,000,000 in seed funds by using lean experiments.
5. Create a clear narrative about clinical evidence
One of the big challenges for an early-stage business in the healthcare space is gathering enough clinically-valid data to show that the science or technology behind their product actually works in a clinical setting. This is often achieved through pilot studies and clinical trials, which aim to prove the veracity of the science or technology behind the product. In a regulated environment such as healthcare, these steps are of vital importance. But this process can often take months, even years, for the required approvals and sign-offs to be obtained and carried out. Founders like Woochan Hwang of Affect AI would ask, “During this time, how do you stay afloat? Do you spend time designing and developing the front-end of the product? Or do you wait?” There is no right or wrong answer, which is why it’s important to be aware of the trade-offs, and craft a narrative for your business roadmap that makes sense to you, your stakeholders, investors and collaborators.
These are five of the key learnings we took away from this interesting discussion, but there are many more. If you are an innovator in the healthcare space, we’d love to hear about how you have overcome barriers to launch your products or businesses.
You can get in touch with us here.