Healthy innovation

4 min read

With the UK medical device market set to carry on growing, Sarah Houlton reports on how innovation can be fostered within the smaller companies contributing to the sector.



medical device market — worth about £4bn — is set to continue its recent strong growth, according to independent research.

Octo Media, organisers of the forthcoming Medical Device Technology exhibition, being held at the NEC on 15 and 16 February, suggests this growth will be fuelled by innovation, with almost half of the UK’s leading medical device manufacturers reporting that they are using innovation rather than price to take on their competitors. New products are being developed for current markets by 70 per cent of the companies, while 56 per cent are innovating to take them into new areas of the sector.

Some fields are proving particularly fruitful on the innovation front, as new materials and technologies are applied to meet challenges. Microsystems are being developed for minimally invasive surgery, new generations of stents are being created for cardiovascular applications, and products are being invented in the field of tissue engineering where new tissues and, potentially, organs may be grown in the long term.

The imaging field is expanding, too, providing a wealth of opportunities for innovators in the medical device sector. Doctors want to be able to see, for example, what is going on once an implant is in their patients. They want information on how it interacts with the body, and even to trace it once it is in place. One method is by a new generation of coatings which have been developed to make implants visible to ultrasound scans.

The UK has a handful of major medical device manufacturers, such as Smith & Nephew and DePuy, but a significant amount of innovation also emanates from the many SMEs and individuals active in the sector. ‘The best way for the UK to compete in a global market is to provide an effective mechanism to support the various stages of innovation for companies and individuals who come up with the ideas and are open to collaborating for exploitation,’ said Prof Mehdi Tavakoli, consultant and technology manager at TWI, and programme manager of the UK’s Health Technologies Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN), formerly the Medical Devices Faraday Partnership.

‘They need support, not only in terms of funding, but also in terms of how to protect their ideas and overcome technical and commercial barriers. Companies need to know how to progress their innovations at any stage along the pipeline, and where they can access specialist advice that will allow them to speed up their innovation process.’

Tavakoli said that a particular problem for innovators is funding — and working out quite where their innovation fits within the funding opportunities available. ‘There are many government and private funding sources — including research councils, DTI, the department of health, regional development agencies, charities and the private community — which support different types or stages of initiating and developing an innovative idea,’ he said. ‘but because there is a lack of connectivity it means that the route for financial support is rarely clear.’

The KTN has been set up to provide wide-ranging support for the UK’s inventors of healthcare products. It offers support in a variety of areas, such as assessment of the degree of innovation in an idea, recommending best practice for protecting and patenting and identifying the most relevant funding sources. It can also facilitate contact with experts who may be able to provide assistance in overcoming technical barriers, and pinpoint partners and service organisations who could take an innovation from concept to product.

The field of medical devices is a little different from many other areas of engineering innovation, as understanding the rules and regulations that must be complied with is critical. Failure to recognise and account for these may delay —- or even prevent — an innovative idea being converted into a practical device or system.

It's not enough merely to come up with a good idea —- that idea must meet a clearly defined clinical need, and Tavakoli advises that it is a good idea to engage with the clinical base early on. This helps ensure that a product will fully meet the medical need, and can be quickly transferred to use. One of the KTN’s major objectives is to create new partnerships between the clinical base, academia and industry, and to ensure an appropriate commercial collaboration is in place that will both motivate and reward the various participants.

The government has recognised that effective protection of intellectual property (IP) is essential for the future success of the economy. Gordon Brown announced in December that Andrew Gowers, former editor of the Financial Times, is to lead an independent review of the UK’s IP framework, which is due to report in the autumn. Although the government claims the current system strikes broadly the right balance between consumers and those who hold IP rights, the review will look at what improvements could be made.

The announcement said: ‘The UK’s IP framework is a critical component of our present and future success in the global knowledge economy. Our economic competitiveness is increasingly driven by knowledge-based industries, especially in manufacturing, science-based sectors and the creative industries.’

Octo Media’s research indicates that a quarter of UK medical device manufacturers have suffered loss of control of the IP on their new products or ideas — and more than half of them feel that there is inadequate protection for their developments. The review will also look at how well businesses are able to negotiate the complex, expensive, patent system, which can be a real barrier to the protection of ideas.

The MDT exhibition will be running an interactive Collaboration Forum alongside the main show. The aim of the interactive networking event is to offer solutions to medical device design and manufacturing challenges.

As well as a programme of plenary sessions and themed presentations from experts, plus roundtable discussions, one-on-one meetings can be pre-arranged with the major suppliers, designers and manufacturers present.

More information can be found here