UK health tech companies take centre stage in COVID-19 crisis response

The role of healthtech innovators has been acknowledged by the UK government as it launches a support and investment package for young tech businesses hit by the crisis.
By Piers Ford
10:11 am
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By the time it has passed, the COVID-19 pandemic will have driven the equivalent of a decade of digital transformation, such is the speed with which the UK health tech sector has responded to demand at every level of research and healthcare delivery.

That’s the view of one contributor to a government-led statement acknowledging the sector’s contribution to tackling the coronavirus crisis, issued by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport with the Digital Economy Council.

Jacob Haddad, CEO and co-founder of GP/patient communication startup accuRx, said GP practices, for example, are being forced to make tech-enabled changes to stay safe and maintain routine services during the crisis.

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“Building a video consultation product over a weekend was one of the first ways that we were able to achieve that, and we have already released a range of other features to support frontline tasks.”

Minister of state for digital Caroline Dinenage said that in the last month, the sector has shown why it is a global leader, using its expertise to develop practical solutions to help the government and the NHS response to the pandemic.

“These technologies will not only help in the here and now but they will also shape the future of healthcare in the UK and indeed across the world,” she said. “We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the startups and tech companies that have switched their entire focus to backing the national effort to tackle this health crisis.”

The statement comes in the wake of the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak’s announcement of a £1.25 billion government support package for innovative young companies that don’t qualify for existing coronavirus rescue schemes.

The package include a £500 million investment fund for high-growth companies. To qualify, a business must have raised at least £250,000 in private equity during the last five years. Private investors must also match any government investment, with the government taking a stake in ownership if the money is not repaid.

WHAT'S THE IMPACT?

The statement identifies a number of coronavirus-driven response initiatives from tech companies over every size, ranging from business support tools, online GP training tools and virus mapping, to temporary staffing platforms, data analytics and apps for NHS staff and medics.

Siemens Healthineers, for example, is working with the World Health Organization to develop a fast-acting test to identify patients with coronavirus, while Unmind and Big Health are offering free access to mental health, meditation and sleep management apps for NHS staff.

The scientific community has also benefited from the health tech sector’s rapid response. Oxford Nanopore CEO Gordon Sanghera said sequencing technologies are helping scientists to understand the transmission of the virus and whether or not it is changing, as well as the effect of other pathogens that are present.

“This information will also be a vital tool for public health authorities as they manage a responsible lifting of restrictions in countries across the world,” he said. “We are committed to supporting scientists using our technology for this important work, and while we do that our R&D teams continue to innovate for coronavirus.”

WHAT'S THE TREND?

The COVID-19 crisis has turned the spotlight on the UK health tech sector at a time when investment has been consistently strong, attracting $7.7 billion from global venture capital investors in the last five years, according to data from Tech Nation’s Data Commons. That makes it the second biggest sub-set of the national tech sector after fintech.

“We are seeing scale-ups making huge leaps that would normally take months or years, in just a few weeks,” said Gerard Grech, chief executive of Tech Nation. “The UK’s health tech sector has grown in size and value in recent years. That puts it in a strong position right now and it is brilliant to see the sector using its resources to step up to the challenge.”

ON THE RECORD 

“For a long time we have been talking about the potential for better use of data and AI in healthcare and digital delivery of care and tools to support frontline clinicians,” said Julia Hawkins, partner at VC company LocalGlobe.

“Now we are getting the chance to use these for real on a mass scale. The crisis is giving health tech companies the chance to show what they can do and the response from many companies who have got involved demonstrates that we do have the talent and skills here to build globally significant health tech companies.”

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