What are innovators’ expectations of an accelerator, and how do these compare to the reality? NHS Innovation Accelerator (NIA) Fellows from 2015, 2016 and 2017 compare their experiences and offer insight for anyone considering applying to join the NIA. 

Dave Burrows, 2017 Fellow

“A journey with the NIA starts with writing the application submission. For me, that alone took a couple of weeks. I was unsure if I should concentrate on what our innovation was, or what we hoped it would become. I opted for the latter, alongside the co-creation story and the current evidence we had.

“It was also clear that the interview panel was interested in me as an individual. All founders know that you quickly replace the ‘I’ with the ‘We’ – ‘We are doing this and that’. Even if there’s only you, it’s always best to talk in the plural.

“This was one of the first submissions where the ‘innovation-in-me’ was just as important as the ‘innovation-in-the-product’. That’s probably the first bomb shell.”Scaling nationally isn’t just about preparing the product, but also preparing the company and myself. Company targets – and my own outlook – had to scale.

“Once selected, what becomes quickly apparent, is that despite most of the submission being about the innovation, the NIA isn’t about getting your product into the hands of every doctor, nurse, patient, etc. Sure, the NIA supports the scaling of proven, impactful innovations across the NHS. However, the NIA is also about finding the right scaling process for the type of product or service that’s being scaled. Think of it like this: the NHS is as much about research as it is about healing, and the Academic Health Science Networks (AHSNs) and NIA are the NHS research project into how to deploy and deliver innovation at scale – the challenge is that the research is still ongoing.

“The expectation may be that the AHSNs and NIA should know exactly how to get any innovation into a Trust or other NHS organisation, which is unrealistic. If your product is a straightforward replacement for what’s already in practise, and fits into the present pathways perfectly, then it’s easy… (well, relatively easy?). But a ‘Big Idea’ won’t be a straightforward replacement. It will involve change, and nobody likes change! Hence, not only is clarification as to what the innovation is and how it can be evidenced, vital; but also, how best it should be deployed and accepted within the NHS.

“This acceptance is the ‘end of the rainbow’ for any innovation. Scaling health innovations, like any other, follow a theory called Diffusion of Innovation. The theory seeks to explain how, why, and at what rate new ideas and technology spread. It doesn’t provide answers – it asks questions that each innovation needs to find its own specific responses to. Who are your innovation’s Early Adopters? How should your innovation change as it becomes mainstream? If these answers need to be innovation-specific, and the AHSNs and NIA don’t know them, then what’s the point of the NIA?

“So, we get to the real reason why anyone should want to be selected for the NIA. There’s a realisation that nobody has the answers – but if anybody is going to help you find them, then it’s the NIA. First, you get access to the AHSN Network. This doesn’t mean lots of time spent marketing your product; it means discussion across the Network on how you could market, engage and deliver to the NHS. Second, you get access to the NIA Team. They’ll support you by up-skilling you personally, and by opening their contact book. Third – and all Fellows agree, the most important – you’ll get access to the other NIA Fellows.

“The easiest way to get to where you want to go, is to be directed by someone who’s been there before. OK, the answers for you and your innovation will be unique, but I assure you that one or more of the NIA Fellows will have been along a similar path.”

Tom Whicher, 2016 Fellow

“Honestly, I was nervous. I had watched the previous Fellows talk, read their blogs, am inspired by their innovations. From the outside, the NIA Fellows are an intimidatingly successful lot.

“Applying, I knew the programme would give DrDoctor the best possible platform to share our work. To take part in the debate on digital innovation and help NHS providers embrace the future we’re all waiting for. The previous year my application to join the NIA had been rejected, so completing the form for a second time, it felt unlikely I would get far. But the process would be a good experience and help clarify my ideas.“So to be invited to Skipton House (NHS England HQ) for an interview – an adrenaline-filled hour in front of a panel of Fellows, patients, AHSN and NHS England representatives, and the NIA Team – was a honour. To be successful was bewildering.

“I wasn’t prepared for how far, personally, I was going to travel. How humble and welcoming, inclusive and driven the NIA family are. Driven by a common goal and common challenges, the group sessions – or Quarterly Events – are a thoughtful, introspective space for Fellows to share and grow.

“The NIA is not a magic bullet to success – you have to work hard, challenge, contribute and you’ll get back what you put in. In innovation, nothing is certain – the NIA may help you grow your innovation. It’ll certainly help grow you.”

Anne Bruinvels, 2015 Fellow

“When I applied to join the NIA, OWise breast cancer app (the mobile patient support app improving patient experience and clinical outcomes) was widely used in the Netherlands, but was only available in Dutch.

“A move to the UK was an attractive one, but to implement a cancer patient support platform in a new country with a completely different healthcare system was daunting. For a young company, it could provide a real break, or it could easily kill it. This was back in 2015.

“Three years later, I can undoubtedly say that having been selected for the NIA has been transformational for us.“The first year was essentially a crash course in ‘NHS England’ – not only understanding how this massive organisation works, but also trying to understand what might work for us.

“With the great help from with my adopted Academic Health Science Network (AHSN), UCLPartners, I was very quickly introduced to all the different cancer and oncology networks. I gained a good understanding as to how OWise could fit in the clinical workflow in the NHS, and how it would need to be adjusted to optimise the use.

“The second year was about implementation. OWise breast cancer (UK version) was launched in 2016, introduced to several NHS Hospital Trusts, and collaborations were established with relevant cancer organisations.

“This past year has been about solidifying the use of OWise in British healthcare. A key collaboration has been set up with NHS Lothian, several UK clinical evaluation studies are underway, and OWise breast cancer has been listed in the Top 25 of all health apps (IQVIA 2017) and in the NHS Digital Apps Library.

“My three-year journey has been a very fruitful one. It’s hard to imagine being able to successfully introduce a novel patient-centred innovation like OWise in the UK without the support of the NIA. I truly hope that other non-British innovators follow our route and consider applying for the NIA.”

The next international Call for the NHS Innovation Accelerator (NIA) will open in September 2018.

Visit the ‘apply’ page or sign up to the Insights newsletter to receive latest information and updates about the Call.