As the NHS Innovation Accelerator gears up to launch its new cohort of Fellows and innovations, we reflect on the recruitment and selection from the latest Call, offering thoughts and insights on this rigorous process. 

Laura Boyd, Deputy Director, NHS Innovation Accelerator

It’s just a few days to go until the next intake of NHS Innovation Accelerator (NIA) Fellows and their fabulous innovations are announced at the NIA Launch on 5th March.

Having completed the recruitment process – which began back in September 2018 – I’ve had a chance to reflect on the past few busy months. At times, I have been overwhelmed by the enthusiasm and insights of the patient representatives who support the NIA, the sheer brilliance of the innovators I have met, and the commitment of the clinicians in reviewing applications.Dual focus: innovation and innovator

The NIA supports high impact, evidence-based innovations to spread at pace for greater patient benefit. Unlike many accelerators, the NIA has a dual focus: it supports both the innovation and the exceptional individual leading it.

This can be a tough call – throughout the year we receive inquiries from individuals and companies interested in applying for the NIA. Some are incredibly inspiring individuals; however they don’t yet meet the NIA criteria of having a ‘mature’ innovation that can demonstrate evidence of patient impact and which are cost beneficial. Others have fantastic innovations which meet the criteria in terms of ‘maturity’ but do not meet the current year’s Call themes.

The challenge in successfully applying for the NIA is to both be an exceptional individual willing to learn and share learnings, and to represent an impactful, evidence-based innovation.

The NIA’s success is dependent on relationships

I genuinely love my job, and one of the reasons for this is the sheer number of experts I am lucky enough to work with. This year, we have worked closely with the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) and the British Heart Foundation (BHF). Both have provided expertise and access to clinicians and patients, and I have been humbled by many of our patient interviewers. Two particularly stand out: Helen – who is deaf, and whose passion for accessibility has challenged both mine and some of the applicant’s thinking as to how an innovation needs to be accessible from the start; and Ewen – who suffered a heart attack at the age of 47, and whose life has been severely affected since but who effortlessly brought humour and real insight to the interviews I joined him on.

I have also been amazed at the willingness of clinicians to take time out of their busy schedules to provide additional specialist expertise on a particular innovation. To me, this demonstrates the interest and commitment from across the NHS to embrace new ways of working that will deliver better patient outcomes.

A range of support now available for innovators

There are only a limited number of NIA Fellowships, and therefore only a small number of applications will be successful on this programme. At each stage, the NIA provides feedback to unsuccessful applicants, and in many cases the interview panels and assessors offer to help applicants. What is increasingly apparent is the range of innovation infrastructure now on offer to support innovators – for example, AHSNs, SBRI, the Clinical Entrepreneur Programme, Test Beds and DigitalHealth.London to name just a few. This is a list that has grown steadily even within the lifetime of the NIA.

The real work has only just begun

From an administrative perspective, the amount of work that goes into running and managing an NIA Call is complete (at least for a few months!). However, now the real work begins – supporting, championing and learning from our next intake of NIA Fellows.

I can’t wait!

Stuart Monk, Director of Delivery, South West AHSN.

I work as Director of Delivery at South West AHSN and enjoy the privileged world AHSNs occupy in working with some of the world’s leading health and care innovators. At SWAHSN, we enjoy supporting the NIA.

In the past, we have supported Craig Newman from Plymouth University to successfully apply for the NIA with his innovation EpsMon. We also brokered local relationships for myCOPD, Docobo (ArtemusICS), and Coordinate My Care, and are now working with ESCAPE-pain and SIM in the South West.Our involvement includes: signposting suitable candidates from our region towards the programme, supporting applications where we can; reviewing applications from potential Fellows; taking part in interview panels to help select the next cohort of Fellows; attending events around the programme; supporting requests from the NIA Core Team to support individual Fellows around specific needs (e.g. business case development, NICE technical document preparation); and brokering relationships between Fellows and our stakeholders in the South West.

An enjoyable experience

I like all aspects of the process; working with local innovators to prepare them for the NIA takes time, and as our understanding of the process increases we are in a better position to do so. We avoid conflicts of interest by ensuring a Chinese Wall sits between those in our team that support potential applicants and those of us that review applications!

Reviewing online applications allows you to dive into the detail of some impressive innovations, and the one-minute pitch videos submitted by the applicants are always interesting to view. Some are more polished than others, and the Fellows spend a lot of time honing their pitching skills once they are selected to join the NIA. I often wonder how many reflect back on the video posted as part of their initial application!

Interviewing potential Fellows is my favourite part of the process. On 11th January, I made the long train journey from Taunton to London for an exciting day interviewing applicants for the new cohort. I worked with frontline workers from the NHS, an investment expert and a citizen representative to discuss how suited we believed six potential Fellows and their innovations were for the programme.

The interviews from the inside

The interview process is intense. Applicants deliver a three-minute pitch, then answer a series of structured questions, drilling down into their potential as Fellows as-well as their innovation. The look and feel is one of a job interview, and this clearly takes some of the candidates by surprise. The consistency and fairness of the panels is one of the NIA’s unique selling points and any Fellow selected to join the NIA has really achieved something.

This year, as always, there was agreement, disagreement, changes of minds and plenty of debate – all part of the fun and crucial to ensure that the best Fellows are recruited. As with the two previous years I have been involved in the process, I loved every second! I am now excited to see how our deliberations influence the decision made on the final cohort. We will do all we can to get our local stakeholders excited about the NIA’s new Fellows and innovations.

Exciting future

I have been involved in the NIA’s recruitment and selection process for the last three years, and have enjoyed watching this national accelerator grow in reputation and stature during that time. It has become one of the AHSN Network’s most important examples of collaborative working and shows what can be achieved by 15 regional organisations working together to deliver an award-winning accelerator – from applications to real-world impact.

Read more about the NIA’s multi-stage application process.

Be amongst the first to find out the new Fellows and innovations selected to join the NIA in 2019 – follow @NHSAccelerator #NIAlaunch on 5th March as we Tweet live from our Launch event.