Dave Burrows, NHS Innovation Accelerator (NIA) Fellow and CEO of Damibu, offers tips to innovators looking to sell their product or technology into the NHS.

“So you’ve got a widget that’s ready to go and you want to ‘sell to the NHS’…

Don’t ‘sell to’ but ‘tender for’

“All public bodies abide by strict rules regarding how they spend public money. If the cost of any project amounts to more than £181,302 (February 2018) it must go out to public tender. This value is called the Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU) Threshold. Purchase processes for anything under this value will change according to which public body you’re dealing with. However, even below this threshold there’s a lot of pressure for public bodies, such as NHS trusts and clinical commissioning groups (CCGs), to open projects for a public tender process.

“The benefit of a tender process is that the buyer has, 1) already decided that they want a solution to their problem, and 2) has already set aside money to pay for it. Of course, this might not work for innovative products. If they don’t know that there’s a solution to their problem, then they might not go out to tender for it. However there are increasing requests for ‘expressions of interest’, to review the possibilities around a particular problem.

“Even if you’re not considering tendering, it’s always interesting to keep an eye on the regional tender portals, such as ‘The Chest’, the North West’s Local Authority Procurement Portal.

Don’t ‘sell to the NHS’ but ‘sell to a NHS provider’

“Many companies have a widespread belief that it’s required to sell direct to a trust or a CCG, however sometimes it’s actually easier not to go directly to the NHS. There are providers to the NHS whose commissioning rules aren’t as strict, so you could instead go to a healthcare provider servicing the NHS.

“This could get you in easier, with less commissioning rules, and it would provide you with a test case. In many cases, once you get to know the workings of the NHS, you may find it’s the providers that are the perfect purchasers of your solution.

“On the other hand, you may have an idea or a widget that, with a bit of research, will be ready to ‘sell to the NHS’…

Don’t ‘sell to’ but ‘partner with’

“Another route is to partner with an NHS organisation via a grant-funded project from UK Research and Innovation or similar initiatives. You’ll find NHS organisations are happy to partner with you and even happier if you can pay for their services. In some cases, such as SBRI Healthcare, projects can come with a partner from the start. If your targeted grant doesn’t come with a partner, there are programs and organisations, such as the Innovation Agency, one of the 15 Academic Health Science Networks (AHSNs), that will help you link into the NHS to find one.

“In either case, if you’ve got a widget ready or you’re going to develop one, nobody’s interested in your technology – they’re only interested in what your technology can do for them.

Don’t ‘sell the tech’ but ‘sell the benefits’

“You will need to put your solution in a context that somebody in healthcare will understand. Google ‘NHS Business Case’ to find an NHS Business Case template on the old National Innovation Centre website. This format is a well-known way of putting a business case to NHS trusts. The sections’ content applies whether you’re selling to the NHS, a provider, or asking for a grant, so in either case filling in the Business Case won’t be a waste of time.

“When applying for grants, you must make clear how your idea is aligned to national policy in the NHS. For example, if you’re doing something related to GP surgeries, you have to explain how and why it links to the GP Forward View or another relevant policy.

“If you’re going directly to the NHS, you need to remember that to get to the stage where someone is assessing your project, you need to have already done all of your testing and you would have already passed all of the hurdles related to referencing national policy. This means, that you have to adjust your applications: text that you have previously written for a research and development grant may not be suitable for an NHS trust tender or proposal.

“It could work, but if you join everyone else in saying, ‘we support the 5 Year Forward View’, then you won’t stand out. It’s best to point out the benefits which the reader can naturally match to their policies. For example, the Cheshire and Merseyside Sustainability and Transformation Plan focuses on prevention and children’s health. When writing about an innovation which addresses this, you could say specifically that this will prevent children using GP surgeries. Concentrate on those particular issues and what benefits they can bring.

“So you’ve got your innovation, you’ve written your Business Case and you want to start ‘selling’ into an NHS organisation…

Don’t ‘sell to the NHS’ but ‘sell to a person’

“The first thing you need to do is to find a ‘sponsor’. This would be somebody who might not have direct control over the money, but will have control or a strong voice in your solution’s clinical area within the organisation. For example, a Children’s Clinical Lead within a CCG, if this is what your product refers to. Your sponsor will be prepared to vouch for and promote your product within their organisation. A sponsor is vital when ‘selling’ innovation.

“In the world of innovation, you often have to ‘sell’ the problem before you can even start to think about selling the solution. This takes time, energy and tenacity. There needs to be a strong emphasis on patient involvement in innovation. As much as your product can be clinically relevant and viable, it must have patient feedback behind it too. If you have no access to patients, your sponsor – given the right ethics sign-off – may be able to help you. First-hand experience and continuous evaluation are essential.

“However, it’s very doubtful that your sponsor can just buy your product. They’ll have to fill in a certain amount of paperwork – how much depends on what your product costs. If it’s £5,000 then it might be 2-3 pages, but if it’s £100,000 then it will be a much bigger process. However, if a sponsor has to spend two weeks doing it for one innovation but only a day for another, then they’re going to spend less time but more promotional energy on the latter. This is where a well written Business Case comes in. A well-structured Business Case can give the answers your sponsor needs for their paperwork.

“So everyone wants it, but there’s still a problem…

Don’t ‘sell to’ but ‘tender for’

“Yes, we’re back to this one. Even having gone through all of the above, you’re still left asking for money from a public body. Not only does the paperwork increase as the cost goes up but also the ‘strictness’ of the acquiring process – each NHS organisation has different levels of power and ownership of budgets.

“If you’re selling a product for £1,000 then a senior staff member may be able to sign it off. However, even at, say, £5,000, a head of department might need to get two or three verbal quotes, and at £50,000 they might need three written quotes. Also, even though the formal OJEU Threshold for public tendering is £181,302 many public bodies have policies that demand public tendering at a far lower level.

“So, in the end, you’ll probably end up tendering anyway.

Finally, don’t ‘sell’

“Generally, clinicians don’t like being ‘sold’ to. Working with the NHS should be seen as a partnership for the good of patients. Anything you produce should have full and true patient involvement throughout. Co-create during development; user test during prototyping; and evaluate during delivery. In the long run, this will deliver a far better product that the NHS will want to take advantage of.”

Dave Burrows is an NHS Innovation Accelerator (NIA) Fellow, representing CATCH – Common Approach To Children’s Health. CATCH was developed by Damibu.