Ajay Desai is an international trade advisor with UK Trade & Investment (UKTI), its lead on healthcare in the West Midlands, and director of international projects at Coventry & Warwickshire Chamber of Commerce. The regional UKTI offices often handle initial contact with a business looking for guidance, before liaising with Desai to discover what initiatives, trade missions or overseas exhibitions might lie ahead.
“All our 35 trade advisers are based inside the Chambers, so it’s easy to co-ordinate our activity,” he says. “We may not always have all the answers, but we do know the questions to ask and the people to go to.
“It might be a business new to exports, so they’ll need a fair amount of specific guidance, or an experienced company considering a new region or country, in which case it will probably be more about signposting them towards some of the big shows and exhibitions, and offering our support.
“We’re increasingly seeing interest from companies interested in the ICT side of healthcare, and ones manufacturing medical devices.
“We can research the potential for their business in particular countries or regions, and set up meetings for them.
“When we took a sector mission to China, for example, we arranged everything from the interpreters to their transport from one place to another. Typically, I think between 80% and 90% of the work needs to be done before you think about buying the plane ticket.
“Issues such as routes to market, protecting yourself through patents, and making sure all your internal and external resources are in place all need to be considered carefully.”
Among the West Midland companies assisted by Desai and his UKTI team are Birmingham based Natural Wellbeing (UK) Ltd, which manufactures vitamins, minerals and dietary food supplements. Business development manager, Darren Lister, says overseas demand for its products has grown spectacularly in a short time. “We worked with UKTI and Medilink West Midlands right from the start, and they are of huge assistance. In each new country, they help us understand the market, then we tailor our products according to the demographics and local trading structure,” he says.
“Our key focus is on our branded portfolio, rather than own label products, and our model is to work with overseas distributors, who then sell to the pharma chains. There’s a complex registration process before we can begin trading in each new country, but already we’re exporting to 70 countries across six continents.
“We started by going to Europe, then to the Middle East and Africa, and we’ve had the same very positive response everywhere. We like to showcase our ranges at trade shows, so we were at Arab Health in January, and we’ll have a presence at similar events in Africa, Switzerland and Germany later in the year.”
Natural Wellbeing’s export campaigns were so successful that the business began 2015 by winning the Medilink WM award for international development. “It was very pleasing to be noticed for our achievements, but there’s a lot of hard work ahead,” admits Lister. “We concluded trading agreements with 26 countries during 2014, so they have yet to come on stream, and we’re also launching a new range of products, so there’s no time to relax.”
At the moment, around 15% of revenue is generated overseas, but Lister says that figure will increase significantly as the formal registrations are completed. “We are very strong in the UK, so export sales look relatively small now, but by 2016, I’d expect the percentage to have risen to between 20 and 25. The company is very much focused on the long-term, and has just agreed a £20m funding package with RBS which will underpin its long-term growth.
“We’re also investing heavily in our manufacturing facilities in Derbyshire, because developing new products is absolutely crucial if we are to maintain our strong position in the marketplace.”
Another business looking overseas with UKTI’s guidance is Just Checking, based in the delightful surroundings of a refurbished saw mill, alongside a canal, amidst the Warwickshire countryside. The venture began in 2004, developing innovative monitors to help people who were becoming forgetful to live independently in their own homes for longer.
Now its advanced systems, which use wireless motion sensors and a plug-in controller
linked securely to the internet, are used by some 85% of the UK’s local authorities for care planning. Many families whose relatives have benefited from Just Checking’s technology during an assessment, subsequently hire its systems themselves to keep a discreet eye on their loved ones, as Nigel Taylor, the company’s head of international development, explains. “Our first system, which was aimed at people suffering from dementia, was designed to assist local authorities when they’re preparing care packages and they typically use it for five or six weeks to monitor an individual.
“Once all the data has been collected, it is used to tailor a care package, and the kit is then taken out and installed in another house. The basic idea is to provide as much objective information as possible, about the way someone is living and looking after themselves.
“We then found that using such a system to see what their relative was doing gave families huge peace of mind, so we developed a different version for ‘family’ uses, with a different range of alert settings.
“Gradually, once we had accumulated significant expertise in designing and operating these systems, we began to look outside the UK because the same demographic and healthcare issues are found in other countries.”
In the short-term, Just Checking is targeting Scandinavia, in the mid-term, it will turn to
the rest of Western Europe, and in the long run, it will look further afield. “Scandinavia is similar to us. Its population is ageing, its healthcare system has serious budgetary pressures and its citizens have a high understanding and uptake of mobile phones and the internet, which are obviously crucial to running and monitoring the systems,” says Taylor. “Denmark is our first stepping stone, then Sweden, Finland and Norway.
“Another advantage is that the penetration of English is very high, as it’s vital to have
very detailed and precise conversations about what the system can do, and how it should be set up and operated.
“We’re already speaking to people who have responsibility for social care provision in each area of Denmark and to the IT people there.
“I’ve already been to Copenhagen, Allborg, Odense and some other major centres.
“They have 98 municipalities, which is a lot for a population of not much more than 5.5 million, but we’re looking to set up a pilot project with a small number, to test the system in their environment and see what logistical and customer service issues might come up.
“As with local authorities here, they want to become more efficient, to treat more people and to save money at the same time, so I’m very optimistic about our chances of success there – and elsewhere.”