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COVID-19: adaptability and rapid response

In the fourth of our series looking at our learning from Covid-19, Alex Leach, Deputy Director of Innovation and Growth, reflects on the huge opportunities and risks that Covid has presented to innovators.

I have always liked this quote from Charles Darwin, who famously wrote in the Origin of Species, published in 1859,

“It is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.”

This quote has never been more true that in 2020. It has been an extraordinary year for everyone and no industry has been unaffected as the world continues to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. Certainly, in the 25 years I have worked in healthcare, both within and alongside the NHS, I have never experienced anything like this.

The Medical Technology industry is, however, perhaps in a unique position. It has needed to respond to the urgent demands of its customers – both in helping detect the virus and in supplying frontline healthcare workers with the means to fight it. But it’s not been easy – companies have had to adapt to a changing economic and NHS landscape, in which supply chains, face-to-face sales interactions, and elective surgeries have all been disrupted. For those medical technology companies not already focused on epidemiology, virology, immunology or PPE, the pandemic has resulted in many challenges. This is a time of huge opportunity combined with significant risk.

At the West of England AHSN, we worked closely with the other AHSNs to collate a list of verified suppliers and companies who could rapidly support NHS members with their needs. In the early months of the pandemic, we saw an outstanding response from industry, supplying ventilators, diagnostic tests and PPE at a record pace. Companies able to respond at speed and scale benefited from large contracts agreed within a matter of days. Companies offered to rapidly repurpose and redesign existing products and solutions, production was ramped up and new ways of working were employed to support a healthcare system under real pressure. The normal slow speed of NHS procurement changed overnight and national procurement frameworks were rapidly put in place. Quality control has remained critical, and companies have needed to work hard to stand by regulatory guidelines to ensure speed did not compromise quality.

Greater collaboration across the system

The AHSN Network halted existing programmes in the early weeks of lockdown to focus on identifying suitable suppliers and products able to respond and support rapid adoption. And together with NHSX launched TechForce19, which sought to identify innovators who could support the elderly, vulnerable and self-isolating during COVID-19 to apply for government funding of up to £25,000 to test their solution.

In our AHSN, we supported applications and provided mentoring support to successful companies, including Aperito and Surecert.

Regional and national blended teams from multiple NHS agencies worked together, alongside industry to identify solutions and facilitate adoption. Funding opportunities were launched to support companies to fund rapid development of urgent solutions needed across the system.

Hurdles to overcome

However, we have observed that this was not a level playing field and not all companies were able to capitalise on such rapid demand. Increasing production takes time and investment and smaller companies often lack the cash flow or the infrastructure to respond at scale. The whole economy has been impacted by the pandemic, which has led to a slowdown or freeze from some investors. There was a surge in investment in medical technology related to COVID-19, but many investors are hesitant to fund medtech that is not directly related to the virus. Some investors are simply waiting to make their investment decisions until the current economic position becomes less labile.

In addition, many technologies that are used in more routine care have experienced a significant drop in usage and the appetite to trial and evaluate products, not seen as pertinent to the COVID-19 response, disappeared overnight. Clinics and surgeries were cancelled and “non-urgent” activities were halted overnight. Many companies have needed to put their sales teams on furlough and seen a substantial drop in income or some remain at risk of insolvency.

New ways to work

I have found it so inspiring to see how companies have been finding new ways to work. The move to home working and virtual meetings has resulted in the usual challenges, including the loss of those spontaneous serendipitous meetings that often create unexpected opportunities. On a large scale, though, we have seen how organisations can work more efficiently from a distance. Virtual meetings can now easily include attendees from across the globe, at short notice with no travelling required. The improvement in the functionality and accessibility of virtual tools allows for speedy data sharing, the development of highly functional virtual teams and created a whole raft of opportunities to deliver healthcare interventions remotely as well.

The pandemic has spurred changes to make the process of regulatory approval and validation more rapid and efficient. The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) started working more closely with industry, academic partners and other healthcare organizations to speed up the pace of testing and trial processes. The overall cooperation between public-private partnerships across healthcare has been a welcome change during COVID-19, and it is hoped that this won’t change after a vaccine is developed for this virus.

Life science business owners have a vital role to play in the industry. There are more than 700 life sciences companies in the UK, all with a growing opportunity to explore existing unmet medical needs, short-term COVID-19 solutions, or longer-term challenges as they come to light.

I believe that while the healthcare industry has uphill battles ahead, medical devices, in particular, will continue to play a critical role in defeating COVID-19. By establishing a collaborative and flexible approach, the medical device industry will find continued success and be integral in the ability of the UK healthcare system to navigate this pandemic and continue to provide improvements in patient care in the years to come.

The severity and unknowns associated with COVID-19 have pushed medical technology companies in new ways, but it has proven to be an integral time for companies to examine how they fit into the medical community’s role when it comes to fighting the virus.

While there have certainly been challenges in the short-term, it’s important to find opportunities where they exist and understand the value in long-term developments, whether they do indeed have the potential to aid in the fight against COVID-19 now or whether they will prove to be vital across the wider system in the future.

The whole AHSN network is committed to continue to work to support the medical technology industry to better navigate the COVID storm and continue to thrive, thereby enhancing patient care and delivering long-term impacts.  My team at the West of England AHSN offers a variety of business development support tools and advice to help health tech innovators get their ideas off the ground, evidence the benefits and grow their business.  Innovators can visit our Innovation Exchange for expert advice, information about funding opportunities and to make contact with our team to access support. Our door is always open.

In the first of this blog series, our Chief Executive Natasha Swinscoe explores how healthcare is changing to manage Covid-19, and considers the factors that helped those on the front-line respond quickly and effectively. Read it here.

In the second of this blog series, Kevin Hunter, Associate Director for Patient Safety & Programme Delivery, discusses how working across systems with multiple partners and the blending of resources, irrespective of organisational boundaries, was a key element of the work we undertook with care homes. Read it here.

In the third of our series looking at our learning from COVID-19, Kay Haughton, Director of Transformation at West of England AHSN, explains how the AHSN used its existing expertise to help healthcare systems during the pandemic. Read it here.

Coming up in the series next week, we’ll look at releasing the power of teams to solve problems as Janina Cross, our Chief Digital Transformation Officer, will share her first-hand experience of working with three AHSNs, the NHS SW regional team and seven STPs to support the digitisation of primary care.


Posted on September 30, 2020 by Alex Leach, Deputy Director of Innovation and Growth, West of England AHSN

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