Life-changing investments: The science that could save the NHS

Katherine Denham

No one can deny (apart from a handful of politicians) that the NHS is in a bad way at the moment.

The crisis reached a head last week when hospitals were forced to cancel tens of thousands of operations in order to free-up resources for emergency care. This – unsurprisingly – sparked a national outcry.

Yes, the lack of funding and the structural problems are the underlying challenges here. But technology can also serve as a saving grace to alleviate some of the issues facing our traumatised healthcare system.

Some of this technology could have a resounding impact on our own healthcare service, as well as those around the world.

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Take OR Productivity, for example. The company designs and develops robotic devices to assist with keyhole surgeries. Its flagship product is a surgical robot called FreeHand, which holds the camera still for surgeons while they’re operating.

Essentially, the device can free up a junior doctor for nearly every operation, which could serve as a huge cost saving.

“The NHS is haemorrhaging money, so products like this have to be the future,” says Laura Ferguson, UK director at Capital Cell, Europe’s first crowdfunding platform specialising entirely in life science companies.

Capital Cell has been up and running in Spain for three years, but it launched in the UK in April to help channel investment into British biotech products like FreeHand.

Its founder Daniel Oliver, who has a biologist background, was frustrated that people who were pitching for life science companies weren’t getting any investment, while new coffee bars and fashion outlets were – despite the fact that they weren’t going to change people’s lives in the same way.

“It’s really out of this that Daniel came up with the idea for a specialist crowdfunding site, where people would understand what these life science companies do, and speak their language,” Ferguson explains.

The biotech sector is brimming with theories and concepts that few of us will understand; even PhD-qualified professors will struggle to wrap their heads around the science behind some of these products.

Ferguson admits that people are often scared because they don’t understand the science. “I think a lot of people in the investment space would like to be a part of the boom in life science investing, but they just don’t know how to get involved.”

Capital Cell hopes to tackle this through its Bioexpert Network, which is a community of 800 professionals in the life science sphere in one way or another – from pure scientists and clinicians, to those in the business world who understand the commercial merits of a science-based business.

“We want to give people the confidence that they can invest, even if they don’t completely understand the deep science – because plenty of experts have looked at it and believe in it.

“We know these companies have the potential to change lives, and the challenge is how do we communicate that to a non-specialist audience.”

Ferguson, who has a PhD in evolutionary biology from the University of Cambridge, says it’s important to be able to talk to companies in their own language.“If you’re trained properly as a scientist, you understand that you know hardly anything,” she says.

But, of course, it’s equally important to be able to explain what’s innovative in the technology to investors. I ask how she can determine the merits of each company when it’s impossible to be an expert in every scientific field.

She explains that Capital Cell will send a pitch to the Bioexperts to review a proposition before the platform agrees to take on a company.

“While we are a specialist platform and we understand the basic principles of genetic engineering, we don’t know enough about everything to make a proper value judgement on it.”

Alongside Capital Cell’s own screening process, most companies also receive funding from the government through the Innovate UK scheme, which means another independent panel has assessed the potential of the science.

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And let’s not forget that biotech can also look pretty sexy from an investment point of view; the rewards can be sky-high if you’re willing to wait it out (and take on the risk, of course).

Ferguson exudes a contagious enthusiasm about the companies she has taken under her wing.

She tells me about OvuSense, which has created a device that measures fertility in real-time (as opposed to using data from previous menstrual cycles). Many women over 30 have trouble conceiving because there is an irregularity in their cycle, so by detecting any irregularities, it has the potential to double the chance of conception.

Another company on the platform is veterinary health firm Tharos, which has developed a natural supplement called EquiNectar that aims to improve digestive conditions in horses. The project could potentially lead to diagnostic products being brought to the market by 2020.

Three companies are currently live on the Capital Cell platform, but it’s still early days, and with a minimum investment of £300, these opportunities are accessible to most investors.

Capital Cell aims to support the broad spectrum of science firms, but Ferguson admits that it may be a while before it lists companies in the really risky corners of the sector, such as pharmaceuticals. “Therapeutics can take years to develop, need tonnes of money, and they really struggle to get that early-stage funding.”

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While venture capitalists might be wary about investing in companies that don’t have a track record, there’s clearly a conscious awareness from the government of the need to channel more money into tech companies. The government is finally realising that we must fund early stage companies in order to create the innovation we so desperately need.

“Lots of innovations used in hospitals are about saving the NHS money,” adds Ferguson.

It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to realise that biotech products have to be taken up if we are going to bring our crippled NHS back from the brink.

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