A stellar line-up from Birmingham’s healthcare and life sciences community mulled over the sector’s challenges and opportunities for the BQ2 Live Debate. Caroline Theobald kept the conversations flowing, Jolly Media captured the event in pictures, and Ian Halstead distilled the discussions.
The national debate about public healthcare has become exhausting. All sides hurl insults and accusations, and obsess on the issue of resources. However, those at the BQ2 event were of an analytical and creative mindset, making proceedings all the more enjoyable and productive.
Each guest set the scene by identifying the strategic challenges which most exercised them. Tony Davis, commercial director of the West Midlands Academic Health Science Network (WMAHSN), made the case for disruption as the catalyst for innovation. “We see opportunity, because of how existing healthcare models and systems can be disrupted, and how we harness the powerful relationships between academics and industry to create new and more efficient models.
“Primarily, our systems have always been focused on place, so the perception has been that the healthcare providers don’t do anything until patients come to them and want their issues to be fixed.
“One area for disruption is to look pro-actively at prevention and self-care, even maybe for private purchase solutions, to manage demand.
“We need to make the system more sustainable, so people don’t go into the ‘fix me’ phase until they have done everything possible to resolve their issue.
”We must also work with industry, to start to articulate value and savings, drive innovation into healthcare and educate patients so they become involved in creating their own solutions.
Steve Taylor, director of strategy and operations for the Birmingham Life Sciences Park, highlighted the crucial role of collaboration. “Its about developing the right partnerships and the right narrative with government and business, for growing out the park and developing economic opportunities.
“Universities, the NHS and companies in our target sectors will be important partners as we evolve our agenda, as will the public.
“We must drive innovation forward, to create economic opportunities, and to bring everything back to better healthcare for patients. I see this debate, not simply as a ‘call to arms’ for the park, but as a chance to increase collaboration and raise the sector’s profile here and overseas.”
John Williams, managing director of Birmingham Health Partners (BHP), saw significant scope for partnerships with individuals and organisations outside the region. “Our core function is to leverage opportunities for innovation between highly-talented academics and business. A good example would be our relationship with Oxford University, in an auto-immune alliance to accelerate new insight, diagnoses and therapies.
“My key issue is the relative invisibility of the West Midlands with regard to healthcare and life sciences. When I talk to colleagues elsewhere, I don’t think we have been as effective as we might in terms of getting our key messages across to politicians, business leaders, influencers and decision-makers.
“We are embarking on a critical period when our messages must be coherent and consistent. Our asset base is considerable, and our influence should be greater for us to grab a larger slice of the investment cake.”
Nicki Gibberson, Calthorpe Estates’ head of marketing, said her organisation had a two-pronged strategy and revealed an intriguing long-term focus. “Our aims are to deliver the business and office space required by companies, organisations and individuals within the Edgbaston Medical Quarter, and help attract FDI to the estate and the wider healthcare cluster.
“In the long-term, we aim to drive medical tourism here, because everyone would benefit from the money which patients bring to the sector and the city.
“The government doesn’t support medical tourism, as it can be a political hot-potato, but we consider its actually a positive.
“It would create new revenue streams for the NHS and I’d like to see people realise its a good thing, which doesn’t take away anything from the NHS.”
Pam Waddell, commercial director of the Innovation Alliance for the West Midlands, was in typically pithy form throughout. “My burning issue is that, although we have been working really hard around innovation for many years, we should re-balance our approach and focus more intently on demand-led innovation, to pull through and not simply just to push out.”
Katie Judge, executive manager at the Greater Birmingham & Solihull LEP, said it had been asked to lead on behalf of the West Midlands Combined Authority on local industrial strategy. “We’re interested in how we can grow the life sciences sector from an investment perspective, and expand the business space. We recognise our huge life sciences assets and are keen to learn how we might help unlock their potential for economic growth and the benefit of our population.
“Raising the profile of the sector is critical. We must also ensure the eco-system is strong, and opportunities for collaboration are brought forward. Our strength in manufacturing is another key asset.”
Mention of manufacturing brought Philip Salt, chief executive of Salts Healthcare – the 10th generation of his family to run the business – to the fore. “We’re proud to have demonstrated change throughout our 300-year history, and are going through massive change today, which is all to do with innovation, manufacturing and Birmingham.
“Innovation is absolutely key to what we do, although we’re always mindful no-one should invent something just for the sake of it.
“My greatest concern is how we square the conflict between innovation in healthcare technology – which usually reduces whole-life costs and increases quality of life – against the current procurement practice of buying on cost.
“I’ve seen tenders where the weighting for cost price is 70%, and have heard about others, where its 90%. If this mindset is allowed to continue, it will stifle innovation and encourage the use of low-quality products, which are often made abroad. Ultimately, the cost of healthcare will rise and the quality will fall.
“We’re maintaining our place as a high-quality manufacturer, and much of our innovation is driven by the NHS, and patient need, but we really must look at whole-life cost not simply unit cost.”
Hugo Russell, programme manager for Serendip at the Innovation Birmingham Campus, was optimistic that his incubator’s model – where various bodies, including WMAHSN, co-locate with digital ventures – could be used to roll-out similar space
across the city, “One of the strengths mentioned by tenants who come to Birmingham is the old adage about it being the city of 1,000 trades, and you can get access to an awful lot of stuff – if you know where to look.
“The biggest challenge to me is around ‘trusted facilitation’, so everyone has a clear understanding of why someone recommends they deal with someone.
“It may be the only option, but could also be because of graft, and relationships are not being recommended because they are the best. I’d love to see cultural change on this issue.”
The merit of involving ‘outside eyes’ was underlined by Dieter Feger, the commercial director for Edgbaston-headquartered Binding Site… who lives in Frankfurt. “We’re absolutely committed to Birmingham. Its where the company’s roots lie and home to around 80% of our employees. We’re still investing heavily here, hiring about 100 employees every year, and see that continuing for at least another two years.
“I agree about the pricing challenge which is a huge issue in the UK and Europe. All too often, I hear ‘price, price, price’, and discussions about quality are driven backwards.
“However, our biggest challenge is talent. We have people commuting from the East Midlands and elsewhere, flying in from Ireland and Western Europe, but many won’t move to Birmingham.
“The other major challenge is Brexit. I don’t see much change in the short-term, the media coverage is over-hyped and Germans are very interested in retaining a strong relationship with the UK.
“Its about human resources. We get recruits from universities and the NHS, but need constant access to quality technicians. We train people, have internship and apprenticeships, and do everything to increase our supply of talent.
“We started a massive training programme three years back, but its still not enough, and our biggest fear is that after Brexit, we might not have the current levels of access to talent from overseas.”
Widening the debate to talent brought Taylor back into the conversation. “We do get graduates from universities across the West Midlands, but we must attract ones from Oxford and Cambridge to widen our intellectual base.
“We must also target our approach to bring in companies where we have demonstrable expertise, such as diagnostics, medical devices and medical technology.
“I see significant potential to benefit from the nurturing of digital and data-based companies which happens at Serendip and elsewhere, but its not just about a physical environment, we also need to create the right digital infrastructure so companies can ‘plug in’ to our digital communities.
“Big pharma, and medium-sized pharma, will benefit from our expertise in diagnostics, but we must ensure they can integrate effectively with clinicians and academics.
“We must start to tell the stories better too. We are the UK’s largest genomics recruitment centre, 18 NHS Trusts work here, there are fantastic opportunities around advanced therapies and the majority of companies involved are SMEs.”
“Very much. We have to find a way to move beyond saying ‘We are great. Everyone says we are great’ and demonstrate that we are great because we are a place that will make a difference to your business,” said Williams.
“How do we get recognition for our demonstrable ability to take a difficult problem, and offer practical people-focused solutions which can transform the delivery of healthcare? We must show we can develop practical and real world solutions.”
“The city has a massive strength, the trusts, the universities and the hospitals, the way they work together, and the talent we have,” said Russell. “We must make citizens themselves aware of just what is here, to persuade them the NHS isn’t just there to rescue people, but that they can participate.”
“Everyone agrees transformational change is needed, but we should also identify quick wins to demonstrate what we as a region can achieve,” said Judge. “We must highlight what has been done and what can be done, and ensure the supply of both new and grow-on business space can satisfy demand.”
“Today’s discussions are a very good start for us, to start thinking about how we can do things differently in life sciences and how we can make a mark,” said Waddell. “Is there something we all can do, NHS trusts, academics and other organisations to drive more demand-led innovation forward?”
BHP’s Williams suggested that the debate be considered from patients’ perspectives. “We should ask them what matters in their treatment, to create space and headroom for our amazingly talented people to step back, think how to address those needs, and then provide leadership to take ownership of this process and deliver solutions.
“Our challenge is to marry up the ideas, the thinkers and the influencers, then reach out to the innovators.”
His comments brought nods of assent, before Davis returned to his theme that individuals should play an increasing role in new healthcare models. “We should all take responsibility for our own healthcare, and look at the lifestyle, choices and decisions which impact our health.
“However, the problem with the place-based system, and why it impacts so heavily on costs, is that it creates silos in terms of investments in healthcare. If we invest in prevention, how do we get a return on that investment and where does that return ‘fit’?
“Data, stratified medicine, modelling and AI can help build capacity and start to track how investment impact on health outcomes.
“Year-on-year though, we are driven to make savings and efficiencies to make healthcare affordable and sustainable. Treating sophisticated products as commodities, and demanding constant savings, means you will end up with cheap and unsafe solutions from other global markets.
“However, if patients are involved, and understand the cost of products and services used to treat them, I believe government will change its behaviours around cost and price.”
“I agree with much that has been said,” said Waddell,” but such changes are for the long-term and there are enormous imperatives from year-to-year. How do we begin such long-term changes and cultural shifts?”
Calthorpe’s Gibberson pointed out that softer issues shouldn’t be forgotten when debating provision of business space. “It was often said in FDI circles that when Toyota came to Burnaston, the deal was clinched because the county council leader guaranteed the executive team memberships at a very grand nearby golf club.
“True or not, it reflects a wider truth that housing, schools, leisure facilities and suchlike are an important element of Birmingham’s offer, when companies and individuals contemplate relocation.”
Feger again offered an international perspective. “I know one individual who went to Tucson, and the state of Arizona offered him a building free of charge, he didn’t pay taxes for three years and got write-offs for his R&D costs.
“Yes, they are still not making a profit, but are turning over US$13m to US$15m a year. They’ve got 10 to 15 people and a small company is on its way. That’s how the world of business works.”
“We often have discussions about North America – and Dieter, I take your point about investment and ‘municipal messaging’ – but quite often also, people seem to think if the right messages are promoted, that private sector investment will be automatically unlocked, but that isn’t so,” replied Davis. “If I think about coming here, I see messages from the WMCA and others, saying life sciences and healthcare are priority sectors, but I wonder: How? As Dieter says, will I receive free rent or other incentives?”
“Even if you wish to be here, and to invest significant sums in your company, there can be obstacles. We’ve just taken almost 100,000 sq ft at the advanced manufacturing hub in Aston,” said Philip Salt. “We had to pass an exam to get it, as we were manufacturing, and now have to submit reams of data about noise levels and go through more hoops.
“We are a very quiet manufacturing company, and just 50 metres from the busiest and noisiest motorway in Europe, so these requirements are very hard to understand.”
Location, location, location
Location, location, location may be the estate agents’ mantra, but its also become the favourite phrase of event planners, corporates and individuals looking for something rather different in the heart of Birmingham.
Every guest at our BQ2 Live Debate could be seen admiring the spectacular city centre views from the MPW private dining room on the Cube’s 25th floor.
Intriguing too, to discover that Birmingham’s seemingly chaotic streetscape makes much more sense when you have a bird’s eye view.
The room – which can seat 22 – wraps itself around the outside of the landmark building, so our breakfast event was flooded by natural light, adding to the sense of theatre.
The adjacent champagne bar is already well known in Birmingham as a setting for luxurious parties, or a large private room for dining or business meetings, but the Haig Club bar also impressed our guests, not least through its eye-catching copper and blue branding.
MPW’s interim sales director, Sasha Ogborne, says that 34-seat venue is particularly popular with lovers of carefully-crafted cocktails, as well as single malts, and its certainly easy to understand why.
And for those seeking something truly spectacular, Sasha says the entire 25th floor is available for hire.
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