It would take about a third of this article to list the hundreds of members of Medilink, the national health technology business support organisation. Since 1999, it has helped them with everything from concept to commercialisation as well as fostering collaborations between academics, clinicians and industry.
Kevin Kiely, as the joint founder and MD of the first Medilink, Yorkshire and Humber. “Our main goal is all about enhancing the competitiveness of the life science sector. We work with the ABCs – the academics, the businesses and the clinicians,” he says. “We put most of our thought and efforts in to the businesses, because they have to manufacture the medicine or device and develop the business model. If that isn’t in place then no matter now innovative the technology or urgent the patient need, you will never get the medicine to market.”
To make sure his company leads its sector, Kevin has compiled a board packed with experience of those ABCs. It includes Sir Andrew Cash OBE, a chief exec for more than 20 years; the vice-president for R&D at Smith & Nephew and the wonderfully-titled vice-president of global concept development at J&J DePuy as well as four MDs from smaller companies; academically, there is the pro-VC for Research and Innovation at Sheffield University and Leeds Universities.
That’s impressive and works in the three simple ways that any well-selected board should encompass. It brings a vast amount of knowledge and experience to assist in getting the basic job done for a member, whether that is business advice, manufacturing, medical science or education.
It is also an advert for the company. It shouts that it has the backing of high-profile people who are willing to put their names to it and further develop their careers with it. So that depth of knowledge also means Medilink itself can be an innovator, and lead the growth of the sector under its own reputation, alongside that of its members.
“Innovation is a central part of what we do, but even catering trucks have ‘innovation’ written on them now, and the word can be white noise, so we have innovation experts with a serious amount of commercialisation experience. They will run open workshops which start with a clinical need and can bring out exciting projects.
“So at one end of the continuum, we can stimulate new projects, and at the other end there is procurement and adoption, how can we help companies sell into the NHS and work with the NHS to get products adopted.”
The fragmented make-up of the local trusts that form the NHS nationally are tricky to negotiate, particularly for smaller companies focused on innovation rather than sales.
The holistic nature of Medilink in Yorkshire and Humber means that the basic outline of an idea can be brought to its door, discussed and developed, financed, have comms and PR attached, and taken to market. It’s the full package.
“The nice thing about healthcare is that any product is global by definition,” says Kevin. “Whatever problem you have, chances are people in Africa have the same issues. That’s very exciting from an economic development point of view.
“Our internationalisation team is contracted by UKTI in Yorkshire to be its life science specialist, and nationally we are Trade Challenge Partner with UKTI, which means we bid for and execute UK pavilions around the world, including Africa, Brazil and Saudi.”
A strong reputation brings its own attention, and it has enabled Medilink to make a considerable impression in the skills arena. Via the Sheffield LEP, it got funding to provide free courses in innovation, PR and comms and will follow that up with social media courses – all for staff within life science companies. This is the impact a dominant company can have on its sector. Like an idea that comes to Medilink’s door, the company itself had to be thought of, developed, structured, financed and brought to market.
Its business plan has been perfectly pitched and it is now in a position to lead changes within life sciences, and even dictate the sector’s future direction. If young companies and entrepreneuers have the vision to make that position one they would like to achieve, then initial success and growth are there to be attained, and the sector they work in is set for life, constantly expanding and developing as new ideas come from new minds joining the group.
“So, at one level we are a not-for-profit company offering commercial services, but we are also altruistic,” says Sheffield-born Kevin. “You wouldn’t get the board and the supporters we have if we were just a private company here to make money. We are able to say we are transforming healthcare because of the ABCs and business being the meat in the sandwich. Without the businesses developing models and products, we wouldn’t see any advances in products and services for the NHS, so yes, we are transforming healthcare.”
Medilink began work with some priming European money from the ERDF to back its work with SMEs. “These days, companies are also coming to us from outside the healthcare sector, but looking to diversify into it. Within a matter of weeks after the oil prices fell we had people contacting us, because clearly there are technologies that can equally be applied in each sector – which is quite exciting for us.
"If we can add value to seasoned healthcare companies, imagine how much we can add to people that have never been in healthcare before and know little about the phenomenally complex landscape.
“I think you should go into a company to listen and show sensitivity and respect to a chief exec and where he (or she) has come from and where he/ she is on the journey. We need to have personable people with a friendly approach – not just a face in a suit.”
The successful three-year plan for the Yorkshire Medilink is coming to an end shortly, so Gary will be helping draw up the next phase of growth, with the national aim always being a fully-effective Medlink in each region, championing local innovation and combining to offer a single national entity. That means closer working with government agencies so that each applauds and accepts the other to provide complete coverage of the sector and the geography.
The future will also embrace the Government’s encouragement of combinatorial technologies, bringing different sectors together so that the sum is bigger than the individual parts.
“I think we are already ahead of the world in this,” believes Kevin. “Not only are we looking at how this will help satisfy an unmet need but, in parallel, we are looking at service delivery – how we can completely transform the service and not just do as we have always done. It is no good just tweaking this and that. We have to treat the systems differently.”
For a man at the cutting edge of healthcare, Kevin’s regular regime of not having lunch, but getting his energy from “gallons of tea” might not exactly get top marks. But the energy is undeniable and the enthusiasm and sharpness with which he addresses the continuous growth of Medilink, and the sector it is a part of, is admirable.
Gallons of tea on the NHS? Perhaps not, but if they could bottle Kevin Kiely, you could certainly take that innovation to market.