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Top Tips for Innovators

Got a great innovation that could radicalise the health care system but overwhelmed by the complexity of the NHS? Lesley Soden, Head of Innovation gives her top tips on how to build relationships with NHS and local authority contacts so you can get your innovation successfully implemented.

With Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock’s increased focus on the advancements of digital and technological solutions for the NHS, the market for health innovations is booming. Whilst it is an exciting time for health tech, for innovators themselves it makes for a crowded marketplace. In addition to the competition you face, you are also expected to navigate the complex landscape of the NHS.

Getting your innovation adopted in the NHS sphere can feel like opening a sticky door that requires the hinges to be oiled continuously. At the Health Innovation Network, we are approached by about 3-4 innovators every week looking for advice and support with getting their innovation bought by the NHS. Whilst every innovation requires different proof-points, we have learnt a number of lessons through our experience of improving the take-up of the Innovation and Technology Payment products across South London, and developed some key steps that all innovators can follow to increase their chances of getting their innovation, product or service adopted.

Target the right people

Having an engagement plan to target the right people at the right time, will stop you wasting yours. For example, if the innovation helps with managing referrals more effectively then a General Manager or Operational Director will be your target audience. If your innovation addresses a patient safety issue, then the Medical Director of Director of Nursing will be the decision-maker you need to approach. Work out which part of the system your innovation will save them money and then work out who is in charge of spending for that department.

Tip: if your innovation has the potential to save money for an NHS provider don’t target commissioners. Also, Trusts often have transformation teams who could help with getting your innovation adopted if there is evidence that it will improve patient care.

Tailor your message

In general, all NHS Trusts or Clinical Commissioning Groups will have the same system pressures as everyone else. These could be A&E waiting times, or the increasing demand caused by more patients having more complex conditions. However, individual decision-makers will have different priorities that concern them on a daily basis. To make sure your message is getting heard you should tailor it to the specific pressures or problems that your innovation could help them with.  For example, the Director of Nursing will probably be concerned with their nursing vacancies and agency costs, or patient safety while the Director of Finance and Performance’s priority is more likely to be addressing long waiting lists, or meeting their savings target.

Tip: trust board reports and Clinical Commissioning Group board reports are all published via their website; by scanning these board papers you can identify their specific issues and make it clear that your innovation solves their problems.

Get clinician approval first

Don’t even think about approaching any director or commissioner if you don’t have sufficient clinician buy-in. After all, they are the people who will be using your innovation on day-to-day and will need to be convinced of its value if you want it to get implemented properly. Approach the clinical teams to highlight the clinical and patient benefits of your innovation, and test their interest, before trying to get it bought for their hospital.

Tip: you are more likely to have an impact with this audience if you show that you’ve done some research. Do the testing, build up an evidence-base and then make your approach.

Learn about procurement

Don’t underestimate the potential for procurement processes to slow down or even stall getting your innovation into the NHS. Procurement is often a lengthy process in trusts, (for very good reason given it is taxpayer money that is being spent) the complexities of which need to be understood and respected.

Tip: engage with procurement teams to understand the process for buying your innovation, so you can don’t delay getting the sign-off for your innovation being adopted.

Refine your pitch

Contrary to popular belief, products generally aren’t so good they sell themselves. I hear 2-3 pitches a week from individuals with a health innovation and the majority of them fall down at the same hurdles. Firstly, don’t start your pitch with the generalist tabloid problems with the NHS. An NHS manager hearing for the third time that week that the NHS has no money and national targets are consistently not being met they will disengage. Instead, touch upon the challenge that your innovation will solve and then give detail on how your innovation is the solution. And the devil is in the detail. All too often pitches include vague statements about an innovation rather than actual detail. The best pitches are those that give overview of the innovation, clinical evidence, quantify return on investment and give an example of past or current implementation within the NHS. Spell out the real benefits using robust data and evidence, but don’t promise you can solve all their problems if you don’t have the proof.

Tip: return on investment is extremely important to highlight early on in your pitch. For example, one company recently included the fact that a different maternity unit had commissioned their online platform because it would save them money on public liability insurance. This type of evidence is impressive, clear and makes it easy to forecast the exact numbers by which your product will make them clear savings. This will always grab people’s attention.

Show how your innovation works

This sounds simple – and it is. People don’t just want to hear about how a product works, they want to see it and even try it out where possible. If it’s a medical device, make sure you bring it with you. Or if it’s a digital solution, do a short demo to help people to visualise your innovation.

Tip: have a quick pitch on your product ready and ensure that it clearly explains how your product works. Practise a 60 second pitch for meeting potential customers on an ad-hoc basis at networking events.

Be persistent, but polite

It’s unlikely that the first email you send will result in a bulk order of your product. It’s probably unlikely it will even result in a meeting. But that doesn’t mean you should stop knocking on doors. ‘No replies’ are not the same as rejection. And rejection can sometimes be ‘not now’ rather than a straight ‘no’. If you believe your product can transform the health care system for the better, then there’s a good chance you can convince someone else of that too.

Tip: don’t assume the worst in people when they don’t respond. Your target audience are busy and overwhelmed by pitches. Maintaining your professionalism and manners at all times will always go further to getting an answer than aggressive chasing.

As I said, getting your innovation adopted in the NHS can feel like opening a sticky door that requires the hinges to be oiled continuously. If you take a hammer to it, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to repair the damage caused to relationships in the future.

Lesley Soden is the Head of Innovation within the Health Innovation Network. She has over 20 years experience in the NHS and public sector. She has worked in senior business and strategy roles in mental health and community NHS Trusts involving programme management, business development, bid writing and service re-design, all delivered in collaborations with a variety of public and private health partners.

For more information on how we work with innovators, visit our Innovation Exchange page or read about our funding opportunities here.