My Question Is…Networking Lunch: What do Med Tech Companies Need to Thrive?, 25 May 2021

Following on from a successful collaborative event between One Nucleus and Medilink Midlands on Collaborating to Support Biotech and Med Tech Businesses Across Our Neighbouring Regions, One Nucleus dedicated our monthly online networking meeting to understanding the challenges that med tech companies faced, as well as the areas of support which could help them to thrive.  Some interesting and engaging conversations ensued, and new connections made.  I am pleased to share with you the highlights from our conversations here…

Question one facilitated by Alasdair Gaw, Project Leader Innovation, Medilink East Midlands: “What can we do to interest more investors in the med tech sector?”  Getting ready for investment from an IP perspective was a key part of this discussion.  Is there more or less to do in med tech IP compared to pharma was a question posed by Alasdair at the start.  Another key consideration to exploring this question was return on investment.  The med tech sector does not have the big returns that pharma does but conversely the cost to get a medical product to market is less than a drug.  Despite this, the med tech sector may not have the same exposure to investors as biotech.  In addition, medical device companies may not know who to go to.  Alasdair suggested that it would be advantageous for medical device companies to target more angel investors, as this early-stage investment could be essential to get to the proof-of-concept stage.  Once the technology is proven, then this would represent a more appealing investment option.  Therefore, Alasdair argued that there should be a focus on getting money for the initial concept.  Another advantage for devices over pharma is they are generally cheaper projects.  Returning to the IP angle, these projects could be more awkward.  For example, digital health moves faster than the patent process and a product could be ready in 6 months and not protected.  In addition, maybe traditional patents are not the answer which could also put investors off.  Therefore, clarifying IP protection and how to scale up could make med tech a more attractive option. 

Question two facilitated by Christopher Mason, Senior Associate, Appleyard Lees: “Why is there a no one-size-fits-all for med tech IP?”  As AI is used to make technological leaps and is increasingly embraced in healthcare, this group began their discussion around AI-based med tech inventions.  The relationship between AI and IP is not a straightforward one.  For example, it is understood that algorithms per se cannot be patented.  However, Chris’ advice here is to keep it simple and if you have made a technical change that is providing a real-world advantage, then there is likely to be something there that you can protect, even if it involves using AI.  It was also highlighted that IP is not all about patents, for med tech other aspects of IP including design protection, trade secrets, copyright and trademarks must also be considered. The group then discussed overcoming blind spots in IP and the importance of developing a good patent strategy.  Some of the challenges to this include: understanding IP terms, misconceptions around IP, and concerns about the high cost.  For some early-stage companies, it can sometimes be easy for IP to drop down the priority list, but IP is critical for the future economic success of a business and bringing in investment and funders.  Even for short lifespan products, a discussion should be had from an informed position as to whether value can be obtained from filing a patent application or from pursuing one or more other forms of IP protection.  Chris emphasized that a head-in-the-sand approach when it comes to IP is not appropriate for any serious business.  It is important to find a suitable attorney who is a subject matter expert and who understands the field.  Using an attorney that is experienced working directly with innovators, as opposed to agency work via an intermediate attorney, can also help to make a difference.

Question three facilitated by Richard Carey-Evans, Senior Innovation Advisor, St John's Innovation Centre Ltd: “What approaches are there for engaging more international trade?”  Richard revealed that within their group they had a recipient of a Queen’s Award winner for export.  Interestingly, the recipient of this award shared that they had not taken a hugely proactive approach to winning overseas business, but rather the business had grown due to reputation and referrals.  Growing your company overseas by acquisition was another option and Richard referred to a specific example from within his group of an acquisition that was in Germany to reach the European market.  The group also went into looking at how business growth had been affected during the pandemic.  This has triggered a new digital way of working that we are pretty much all comfortable with.  For example, global online conferences and events have proven to be effective at keeping the business wheel turning and enabling businesses to connect with a global audience.  Perhaps one of the more obvious ways to expand business abroad is to seek help from the Department for International Trade and Innovate UK Edge.  The latter has two quite strong initiatives including the Global Business Innovation Programme and the Global Incubator Programme to support companies who want to grow overseas.

Question four facilitated by Alex Lloyd, Principal Advisor - Commercial Delivery Lead, Eastern AHSN: “What attributes are required for successful companies in the med tech space?”  Perhaps the broadest of the questions, Alex’s group highlighted finance as one of the most important enablers when considering what the med tech sector needs to thrive.  A comment was made that start-ups often face the greatest funding challenges, but the group ardently identified resources to help.  This includes a list of accelerator hubs on the UK Science Park Association (UKSPA) website and the Eastern AHSN grant opportunities report.  The group also discussed different types of support to help med tech companies progress to commercialisation.  Alex commented that it may be the case that innovators in this space are experts in technology, but not necessarily in coming to market.  Mentorship, support and partnership opportunities are available via digital health incubators, the Clinical Entrepreneur Programme and the NHS Innovation Accelerator which is operated by UCL Partners AHSN.  Alex commented that collaboration will ultimately help companies thrive and sometimes these can be unexpected relationships too, citing the McLaren and GSK case study.  The ability to embrace change was also highlighted as a beneficial characteristic for med tech companies, as well as the ability to pivot.  An example of this is that those companies which were strong pre pandemic are now at an advantage coming out of it.  Finally, the group discussed patient and public involvement as critical, as well as the need to define user requirements at the outset.

One Nucleus is very grateful to those facilitators and attendees that participated in this session.