Supporting regional innovation alongside a national partnership

Dr Jo Dixon-Hardy is the Director of Grow MedTech based at the University of Leeds. In this article, she discusses how we used our experience delivering a national programme, to benefit innovation at a regional level.

Grow MedTech is based on a regional partnership and is – as the saying goes – greater than the sum of its parts. By combining the strengths of six universities, the programme can provide far more than any one institution alone.

But we’ve learned vital lessons from pre-existing national partnerships, in particular the Medical Technologies Innovation and Knowledge Centre (IKC), funded through the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. Having oversight of both the IKC and Grow MedTech has allowed us to capitalise on shared expertise while leveraging the differences between us, to the advantage of both programmes.

Technology and geography

Regional and national partnerships respond to different needs and agendas, but having the IKC and Grow MedTech, with linked programme Translate, running in parallel and seeding across each other, has been of benefit to all.

A national footprint requires world-class expertise and facilities, usually in a very specific area. The IKC, for example, focuses on innovation in regenerative devices. With this defined technology area, you need to cast your net across a wider geographical area to engage with enough relevant partners – particularly in industry. Partners are also more willing to connect with programmes outside their immediate geography, if doing so gives them access to more specialised knowhow.

A regional partnership like Grow MedTech has a smaller geographical footprint, and covers a wider range of expertise. Our remit was to build regional capability in knowledge exchange across the six partner universities, working with the 250 or so medtech companies in the region. As a consequence, our technology scope needed to be much broader than the IKC and was open to any kind of medical technology (excluding pharmaceuticals).

When we widened our scope, we built collaborations with multiple regional initiatives to address gaps in the Grow MedTech skills base. For example, Medipex brings knowledge of and access to the NHS, Medilink represents the Healthcare Technology sector, providing a good understanding of company needs as well as sector specialist expertise in regulation and commercialisation. The Yorkshire and Humber Academic Health Science Network brings a deep understanding of the needs of healthcare systems and the partnerships and interventions required to address these. All three are represented on the Grow MedTech Opportunities Management Panel, as well as engaging extensively in technology development projects and skills development provision. Other organisations, such as the Leeds NIHR Medtech and in vitro diagnostics Co-operatives (MICs), bring sub-sector insights, such as surgical technologies and in vitro diagnostics. They have partnered with Grow MedTech in different ways – for example in joint funding calls, as co-development partners on technology development projects and in training delivery.

Lessons learned

The two programmes stimulate each other. We’ve achieved a great deal in three years with Grow MedTech precisely because we had nine years’ experience of delivering the IKC to draw on. Through the IKC, we developed, iterated and tested our innovation processes. Grow MedTech was able to build on this model of experience to develop approaches that would align with the needs of universities and the wider medtech community in the Leeds and Sheffield City regions.

The IKC demonstrated the importance of bringing businesses together with world-class experts, accelerating the commercial development of new medical technology products and services. By bringing people together from different but complementary disciplines and with different technology development knowhow, the IKC showed how technologies can be de-risked to accelerate the development process. With Grow MedTech, we brought together a team of people – our Technology Innovation Managers – with different but complementary experience of the medtech industry, product development, or innovation management. They were able to use this combined knowledge and expertise to support and mentor academics and their collaborators in de-risking their technologies.

With each based in one of each of the six partner universities, the team was able to extend its reach into the academic communities of all six universities and the wider industrial networks. In return, this medtech community was able to access the breadth and depth of innovation expertise of all six Technology Innovation Managers. Feedback from academics and their collaborators tells us that this support has made a big difference in identifying the questions they need to address to progress their technologies effectively and efficiently.

Shared partners

Partnerships have been important for both the IKC and Grow MedTech. For example, Versus Arthritis first partnered with the IKC in order to access knowledge exchange expertise. We work with them to deliver their medical technology funding calls and manage the funded projects on their behalf. Although they are a national charity, they’ve also been involved with Grow MedTech and Translate, helping us with patient and public involvement, providing secondments and running training workshops.

Many organisations collaborate in some form with Grow MedTech and with IKC, but the relationship between the programmes’ partners is a special one. Partners are invested in the process: they share accountability and have bought into the vision. They’ve agreed the objectives and they commit to sharing and delivering the targets. Partners are usually involved from the inception of a programme, but some may join later and become truly invested – as Sheffield Hallam have done as a latecomer to Translate.

Mutual benefit

It might be natural to assume that only a national programme can have a national profile – but with IKC, Translate and Grow MedTech we have shown how the three activities stimulate and support each other. The IKC has been instrumental in many important strategic regional developments, and our regional programmes have helped us engage on the national and international stage.

For example, the IKC led the Science Innovation Audit in the Leeds City Region, published by BEIS in 2017, which identified a series of targeted opportunities for developing the Leeds City Region medtech sector and supporting the industry across the UK. As well as increasing awareness of the region’s strength in medtech, it started to cement relationships between key medtech stakeholders in the region, leading to, for example, the signing of a memorandum of understanding in 2019 between the region’s universities, the Association of British Healthtech Industries, the Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership and West Yorkshire and Harrogate Health and Care Partnership. This MOU commits the signatories to work together to accelerate healthcare innovation.

Similarly, when the Leeds City region put itself forward to host a global workshop as part of MIT’s Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Programme (MIT REAP), it was the regional Translate programme, which provided a tangible demonstrator of how the region was working together, which was instrumental to the to the bid being successful. Leeds went on to host a MIT-REAP workshop which saw regional leaders from eight other countries come to Leeds to work together on innovation and entrepreneurship.

The connections between IKC, Grow MedTech and Translate have shown us how each of these programmes benefits from the alignment of the others.