Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer has launched a startup accelerator programme to help late-stage healthtech startups get their technology adopted by the National Health Service (NHS).

Speaking to Techworld, Dr Hamish Graham, a practicing surgeon and London manager for the Pfizer Healthcare Hub, said it "will provide a platform for start-ups to harness Pfizer’s global network, enabling them to get access to our expertise, understanding and guidance. We hope, with our support, that they’ll be able to reach their goals and get their innovations adopted within the health service.”

Hospital bed NHS
iStock

Read next: 15 UK Healthtech Startups to Watch: From patient apps to genomics startups

Pfizer says tech like healthcare devices, apps, wearables and virtual reality is potentially transformational for the healthcare industry. The initial programme will help just three startups, and is focusing on companies which have developed a product or service ready for use by healthcare professionals.

Graham gave the example of a startup that has made a wearable with a CE mark or software proven in one area, say law or education, and is interested in entering the healthcare space, as the sort of solutions they are looking for.

Startups in healthcare face an enormous challenge when it comes to getting their products adopted by the sprawling NHS, but the potential rewards are massive.

"You have to understand their language if you want to get your tech adopted there," Graham said, "You have to understand their priorities and it is a challenge for a lot of startups. They can be fluent in their coding, product development and put a great team together but they then struggle to expand to hospital two, three and four, because they need to communicate their value in a way that a manager can understand it."

He does recognise that no one solution will be a silver bullet for the NHS's digital struggles.

Bluntly: "If you believed you could find a silver bullet, and get it into the NHS in twelve months, you wouldn't understand the NHS well enough. You can't do that journey in your bedroom, you have to be out there working with hospitals, IT departments and patients."

Big pharma and healthtech

Naturally Pfizer isn't the only big four pharmaceutical company casting its eye towards healthtech in the drive for innovation.

AstraZeneca recently launched a tie-up with UK healthtech startup Umotif, which focuses on digital patient data capture techniques for doctors and clinical researchers.

GlaxoSmithKline is also looking towards the technology sector to try and improve its data capture for clinical researchers. The drugmaker was reportedly in talks with US chip maker Qualcomm last year to more efficiently collect and analyse data from clinical trials.

GSK's consumer health division is also looking for "patent-protected innovations in early- or late-stage development" in four areas: "medication adherence, health and symptom tracking, diagnosis/self-selection and treatment."

The drugmaker wants these digital tools to compliment its existing over the counter medicines and in exchange offers "GSK’s deep understanding of consumers and clinical research experience."

Pfizer Healthcare Hub

The difference with Pfizer's approach is that it doesn't necessarily want to license or "co-create" solutions with these startups, rather than simply help them get to market.

"What is important for Pfizer is we're not taking any equity and don't want to own anyone's IP and they can work with anyone they want to," Graham said.

"If you look at some of the other accelerators, they are quite big on mandatory training requirements and contact time and they may have KPIs around growth or employment in an area, we're not tied by any of those strings."

Graham realises the Pfizer name doesn't always have positive connotations. "We could be intimidating to small companies," he admits. "I can say that we don't want IP or equity but I'm not sure how many smaller companies are ready to trust us with that message."

By starting with just three companies Pfizer says it will be able to offer them personalised support, whether they need help with marketing, health expertise or just a rolodex. "What we are trying to do is spend enough time with them making sure they have the assets they need and knowing what to say or who to say it to and getting them out there in front of the right people to get that tech adopted," Graham said.

In terms of internal measures of success for the programme Graham says they have just one key performance indicator (KPI): "To get the tech adopted by NHS trusts. At the end of 12 months that's how we know if we have done a good job. Are there people using it? We've got no other KPIs."

So what's in it for them? Good PR, for one. Pfizer was fined a record £84.2 million by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) for overcharging the NHS for an anti-epilepsy drug in December. Pfizer is appealing the decision, but helping its biggest customer - the NHS - overcome major problems will score the company some much needed brownie points.

Finally, delving into the healthtech world will help Pfizer stay abreast of innovation across the entire healthcare space, not just the high-end drug discovery space.

Details

Startups have until 30 April to apply. They will compete for a share of a grant of £56,000 and a year-long programme of support, including access to contacts within the UK health industry. Pfizer will not ask for any transfer of intellectual property or equity in the business.

Applicants will present to Pfizer and a panel of experts at a pitch event at the company’s UK HQ on May 18, and the winners announced in June. Startups can apply at: healthcarehub.pfizer.co.uk.