After dragging on for years Brexit finally happened and, having worked on European-funded activities since the beginning of the 1990s, I have to confess I’d hoped it would never happen.
I saw Europe’s impact first-hand on much-needed capital developments, including the building of the A55 in North Wales, the transformation of Liverpool’s waterfront and the significant improvements made to the science infrastructure in the region, all part-funded with European regional development monies.
I also worked on many university-based projects that provided business support, which gave me proper insight into what it is like to be a small business today. Since 2017 when I joined the Innovation Agency, I have supported innovators from across Europe to access what they see as being a very lucrative market, the NHS and the wider health and care system. We had three companies in our first cohort but more recently this has increased to 15 companies each year.
We’ve grown our International Team to accommodate this but I worried that innovators would not want to come to the UK in a post-Brexit world and we started to ask ourselves a number of what we thought were valid questions. How would they view us, now that we have left the European Union? Would the changes in legislation and the regulatory approval process deter them? Leaving the EU felt like a hostile act – how would innovators react?
Paradoxically the reverse has been true because it is not just the market opportunity that motivates innovators. We have not only continued to attract interest from Europe but our network has expanded to Israel, the USA and elsewhere. Significant Israeli government-backed initiatives have been very helpful in opening up the clusters of med-tech businesses that thrive there. We’ve also worked with the Northern Health Science Alliance and other northern organisations to show that the front door to the UK is the North of England, providing the perfect blend of business support, soft-landing opportunities and NHS trusts willing to do business.
There has also been a silver lining to the pandemic awfulness, with remote monitoring and treatment and the application of AI technologies offering potential solutions to some of our post-pandemic challenges. Of course, it’s been easiest to showcase these technologies to those hospitals which serve a remote and rural community, in Scotland and Wales in particular but also on the Isle of Man and the Isle of Wight.
Not surprisingly, there’s also been interest shown by secure psychiatric units and Her Majesty’s prisons, where the benefits of not having to make physical high-cost and high-risk transfers to hospitals are obvious. Naturally the companies we support want to win contracts in the UK but there is more to the collaboration than that. Some - not all – have established a base in the UK which is great news for us, not just because they are bringing game-changing stuff to us but because they are creating jobs in our region.
So, despite Brexit, our international portfolio (and team) keeps on growing. We will continue to cast our net as widely as possible to bring state-of-the-art innovations to the UK, with a focus on those which will help us address the health challenges that our population and healthcare system face. You can read more about our Enterprise and Growth Team’s experiences in the last year in our annual report, Our COVID-19 story.