Rajesh Agrawal

Rajesh Agrawal, Deputy Mayor of London

Tech firms urged to help tackle health demands

London’s life sciences sector is calling on the capital’s buoyant tech community to help find solutions to the city’s most pressing health problems from air pollution to diabetes, obesity and mental health issues.

The UK economy is boosted by £145bn a year from digital technology, and London is at the forefront with a booming tech sector which has outperformed the rest of the economy in recent years.

However, the capital’s buoyant tech sector has the potential to do more than just stimulate economic growth. It could also help us live healthier lives.

As part of London Tech Week, the HealthTech Innovators Conference hosted by MedCity, Tech London Advocates HealthTech Group, Asthma UK and DigitalHealth.London, 200 entrepreneurs heard about the strains put on the healthcare sector and how wearables, devices and apps could enhance, and even save, lives.

Tackling London’s polluted air in particular is a top priority for the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who this week launched the Clean Tech Innovation Hub; a £1.6bn incubator to help 100 SMEs to deliver low-carbon and clean-tech products.

Air pollution in cities is a major concern for 61% of UK adults, according to a survey of over 2,000 UK adults conducted by MedCity, with more than half (57%) agreeing that technology could provide a solution.

Over 600,000 Londoners are living with asthma and two thirds of people with asthma say air pollution leaves them fighting for breath, according to Asthma UK.

At a cost to the NHS of over £1bn annually, new technologies are needed to deliver personalised lifetime asthma support and reduce reliance on overstretched clinical services.

Speaking at the event, Rajesh Agrawal, deputy mayor for business, said: “Our most pressing environmental challenge is cleaning up London’s air, as almost 10,000 Londoners die prematurely each year, because of filthy London pollution.

“Clean air audits for schools, funding five new Low Emission Neighbourhoods and implementing a T-charge for the oldest most polluting vehicles in central London, are all high on the mayor’s agenda.”

“London is Europe’s leading technology hub; our talent, diversity, entrepreneurial spirit and global connections put us at the heart of digital technology.

“We are looking to this community to come up with smarter, more accessible ways for people to manage and improve their health.”

Kay Boycott, CEO of Asthma UK, added: “We strongly believe new technologies like smart inhalers can support people to manage their asthma better – reducing life-threatening asthma attacks and easing the burden on the NHS. Using technology to monitor common asthma triggers such as pollution can play an important role in this.”

The populus survey of over 2,000 adults also showed that society is keen to get involved in health tech as 41% of adults said they would have a microchip installed in their body to monitor their health and 30% would be happy to have surgery performed entirely by a robot.

London is the digital capital of Europe, ranked by the European Digital City index as the best city in Europe for digital entrepreneurs, and is a hotbed of digital talent, with 240,000 digital technology employees based in the city.

Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates, said: “London has established a reputation as a global destination for tech innovation due to the city’s wide range of digital specialisms and expertise.

“Just as tech is creating jobs and attracting investment, it can transform the way Londoners interact with each other, businesses and their city. With a critical mass of innovative tech companies we are now in a position for entrepreneurs to find digital answers to some of the city’s biggest challenges.

“I have every confidence that the burgeoning health tech sector will find answers to health-related issues such as impact from air pollution to obesity that were previously unimaginable.”

Sarah Haywood, CEO, MedCity, said: “Already, many of the world’s most innovative advances in digital healthcare are happening across London and the South East.

“Passionate tech experts are working alongside open, tech savvy patients to develop solutions to help them treat, monitor and record their health.

“We have drawn the big thinkers in digital health together to respond to the most common issues affecting London, including diabetes, mental health, and pollution, to create the solutions needed to lead to better, more personalised treatments, reduce hospital time and save the NHS money.

“Our work with companies as part of the digitalhealth.London Accelerator means that these innovative approaches are starting to get to patients, doctors and hospitals.”

DigitalHealth.London, a pan-London initiative created to support London as the global capital for digital health, is currently recruiting its second cohort of 30 digital health start-ups to its accelerator programme, which will see them work directly with the NHS in London to develop and commercialise their ideas.

One innovative start-up in particular to benefit from such a programme is OurPath, a London-based digital healthcare start-up helping tackle type 2 diabetes. Just this month OurPath announced that it has raised £500,000 as it looks to roll-out its programme across the UK.

The company was launched by former Cambridge University scientist Mike Gibbs and Oxford University engineer Chris Edson after they spotted a gap in the market for a solution which combines technology with live support and educational content.

Chris told BQ: “We started off three years ago when I was working at NHS England. It became really apparent that type 2 diabetes, which wasn’t something I knew a lot about, was devastating the NHS.

“We quickly realised that if you could eradicate type 2 diabetes, which is totally lifestyle based and avoidable, you could basically save the NHS. You would save all of the cuts that are being made.

“I looked at America and realised that the States were using technology to improve the lives of people with diabetes and also helping people avoid getting type 2 diabetes and I thought, why don’t we have this in the NHS?”

And through programmes such as DigitalHealth.London and the Digital Health London NHS accelerator (which helped OurPath break into the NHS), it is hoped that more and more of the capital’s disruptive and innovative tech firms will help tackle health issues not just for our NHS but for people across the globe.

Yinka Makinde, programme director at DigitalHealth.London, concluded: “The prosperity of a thriving digital health sector is not purely down to the entrepreneurs starting and leading new digital health companies. A larger piece of the success pie can be apportioned to the culture of the healthcare system that these companies are trying to sell in to.

“DigitalHealth.London’s broader remit in working directly with ‘buyers’ in the system, gives us a huge part to play in building knowledge of, and access to the genuinely great digital health solutions, amongst an often-overwhelming number of players, that have the potential to transform how healthcare is delivered and gradually shift the focus away from ‘illness management’ to health optimisation and self-care.”