MedCity and why R&D and industry need to collaborate to innovate
Collaboration has been the driving force behind the growth of many industries — and medtech is no exception. It is, after all, a direct result of the collaboration between medical research and industry, encompassing health investors, SMEs and manufacturers. But is collaboration enough to secure medtech’s future, asks Ayesha Michandani
The launch of MedCity’s Collaborate to Innovate (C2N) programme on 15 June at King’s College London highlighted the growing importance placed on encouraging academia and industry to work together more closely. The project offers up to £100,000 of funding to SMEs seeking to work with academic research groups, and has the aim of solving problems in the life sciences/health arena, and promoting knowledge transfer and the commercialisation of innovations. While such initiatives are designed to promote innovative advances in the field, the focus appears to lie more towards the industrial sector of medtech as opposed to research and academia.
Beyond sharing and caring
Collaboration, unlike the simple act of sharing, is an active process that requires effective communication and shared motivation. It comes hand in hand with innovation. The Programme Manager of Collaborate to Innovate, Dr Riam Kanso, defines innovation as ‘novel collaborative ideas’. This is the underlying message conveyed in the government-commissioned report by the CEO of GSK (GlaxoSmithKline), Sir Andrew Witty. The overarching recommendation of 2013’s Review of universities and growth: encouraging a British invention revolution was that government should help ‘drive forward globally competitive technological ideas into real businesses’.
A year after the report was published, MedCity was launched with the aim of facilitating collaboration between research and industry by alleviating potential financial strains through schemes such as Collaborate to Innovate. So far, its initiatives have proved to be successful. For example, Angels in MedCity , an earlier scheme, pairs investors with entrepreneurs in fields including medtech. The initiative sponsored companies such as Sense Biodetection Limited, which raised over £508,000 in seed investments.
Lack of sufficient funding is a critical hindrance to effective research. This kind of research requires much more than a strong scientific method, it also needs the right equipment and resources, which cost money. Cila Herman, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Johns Hopkins University in the US published the article Emerging technologies for the detection of melanoma: achieving better outcomes in the Journal of Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology in 2012. In it, she highlights the significance of funding programmes for the growth of the medtech industry: ‘The funding for technology development beyond the initial feasibility studies… funding of large-scale studies to demonstrate the effectiveness… [and] complex… lengthy governmental approval process are the main challenges to medical technology finding its way into clinical medicine.’
MedCity: building relationships
MedCity, in itself, is a collaboration between the Mayor of London and London’s three leading universities: Imperial College, King’s College London and UCL. The fourth chapter of Andrew Witty’s report focuses on universities and SMEs. While he postulates that supporting local SMEs will unveil the potential hidden within universities, the review concentrates on the increasing reliance of the UK’s economy on SMEs. More specifically, Witty discusses SME’s failings, including their lack of innovative performance in comparison to their European counterparts. Perhaps, this is a direct result of insufficient collaboration between research and industry? This concern has been addressed by the Higher Education Innovation Fund, which was created with the sole aim of supporting SME innovation. But as a result of targeting finance entirely at SMEs, the role of research groups in this collaborative model seems to have been undermined. Nevertheless, as stated by the CEO of MedCity, Sarah Haywood, ‘it is a first step towards developing an interplay between academia, industry and the health service’.
Ultimately, the key question is whether the emphasis on SMEs and industry can be justified in the field of medtech. Biomedical research has played a fundamental role in the industrial production of biological products such as human insulin. Medical device innovation and production, on the other hand, relies more heavily on technological capabilities. Consider, for example, the MelaFind optical scanner, which emits 10 electromagnetic wavelengths to scan areas of skin for potential melanomas. This technology was first invented to identify missiles in space and its production was funded by the US Department of Defense. Creating, producing and manufacturing an electromagnetic device are industrial processes. Biomedical and medical research was simply necessary to aid translation of this technology for use in clinical practice. This involved identifying how electromagnetic radiation (EMR) can be applied to early melanoma detection and how medical devices could be made safe for use on patients. The role of research in this example was limited.
Research’s unexplored potential
The German medical technology industry, conversely, recognises that there is unexplored potential in research beyond being a useful adjunct to industry. Its medtech market is the third biggest in the world and its innovative competitive edge is owed to its research and development institutes. An industry overview in 2011 highlighted:
33 per cent of the German medtech industry’s turnover is from products less than three years old
The role of research is demonstrably much more highly valued here, and a number of financial incentives are solely targeted towards research and development (R&D). It is therefore no surprise that the PWC scoreboard ranks Germany higher than the UK for a ‘supportive regulatory system’, one of the five pillars that supports medtech innovation.
Yet the same scoreboard considers the UK to be more resourceful in terms of innovation. This clearly emphasises the UK’s potential to reach higher standards of innovation. The undervalued role of R&D in the UK is thus questionable.
The depreciation of R&D in the UK became particularly clear at the launch of Collaborate to Innovate, when researchers expressed concern about financing research for areas not ‘close to market’. In fact, one attendee had even changed careers because of a lack of financial incentive to carry on her research into finding new drug targets. The emphasis placed on proximity and usefulness to industry can therefore impede such innovative advances. Programmes like Collaborate to Innovate, while successful in providing financial incentives for SMEs to use research as a way forward, don’t address the reluctance to finance scientific research that can’t promise quick and definite results.
Therefore it’s arguable that it’s MedCity’s matchmaking service for research groups and potential investors that makes it stand out.
The potential of an innovative future
Despite all of this, the UK’s medtech industry is expanding and has the potential to make a significant contribution to the economy. Government estimates are that the market will grow by 7.3 per cent per annum, reaching a value of £9.1 billion by 2018. While it’s exciting to see that potential being explored by the rise of initiatives such as MedCity, the entrenched roles of industry and research have yet to be challenged.
Read more about driving innovation in Sue Montgomery’s article: 4 key strategies for unleashing medtech innovation.
Originally published at medtechengine.com on July 13, 2016.