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Guest blog: From an idea to a social business - How the Yorkshire & Humber AHSN has shaped our journey

Written by: Darren Crombie - 1st April 2021

In this blog, Darren Crombie, Founder of Bridgit Care, discusses how the AHSN has supported him on his journey to grow his business.

Are you thinking about setting out into healthcare technology?

Maybe you’re thinking about setting up your own business and making the jump to become a start-up founder?

Or even thinking about becoming a social entrepreneur?

Then maybe this will help.

Here’s my story and how we would not be where we are without the free support, guidance and friendship we’ve received from the Yorkshire & Humber Academic Health Science Network (And yes that’s a mouthful!).

Taking the leap

My story begins in the summer of 2017. I was lucky enough to attend a session in Leeds and watched Yorkshire & Humber AHSN’s CEO Richard Stubbs give a talk on the AHSN and Leeds tech sector.

For those that haven’t met Richard, check out his posts and videos online. He encompasses everything that a great leader should have; experience, passion, drive, understanding, and a smile that brings people to him.

As Richard talked about the opportunities in HealthTech, the support that his team could provide, and the great ecosystem in Leeds, I dipped in and out of what he was saying.  

I was perched at the back of the room quietly thinking about how/when to start my own business. How to make the jump from an employee to an unemployed founder with a young family to provide for? It meant taking a jump into the unknown. Jumping from a company I’d known, and in the main loved, for a decade, into a world of self-doubt, self-inflicted challenges, but hopefully fulfilment and reward?

After that session, I really got my head down and in early 2018 Upstream Health was born. Our mission was simple: to deliver Upstream preventative care using technology to empower patients and care teams. Helping them to intervene early when issues are small, to stop issues from becoming bigger (and more expensive to resolve) later on. We wanted to enable truly integrated working. Putting the patient at the centre of the care provided by their GP, Acute, Community and Social care teams. Providing a technology platform and solution to join their pathway and integrate the care teams around them.

A lot to learn and time for a big pivot

We slowly grew our services and solutions, deploying clinical portals, mobile clinical apps, patient apps and video consultation products and getting places on all the key government procurement frameworks. But through this growth, we struggled to deliver on our vision for integrated and early preventative care. 

We struggled to get traction on our ideas and solutions that could help drive earlier interventions through cross-organisation workflows. During that time, we engaged in accelerator programmes, meeting CCGs, Local Authorities, and developing our initial relationship with the Yorkshire & Humber AHSN. 

We’d been meeting with the AHSN Innovation Director Neville Young, who has always provided us with honest, direct and challenging feedback. We’d received invites from the AHSN to attend a number of workshops to learn from users, and opportunities to present and share our mission at events. What we learnt from that engagement into the health system was that we’d been naïve. 

The reason that we don’t deliver truly integrated care isn’t because of a lack of tech, or innovation. It’s because integrating stretched teams, that exist under different management and have conflicting budgets, is crazy hard. At the ground level, there is a desire to integrate, but when you only have minutes for a patient consultation or visit, then there’s just no capacity in the system to integrate to deliver preventative care. 

That’s why with these insights, in the summer of 2019, we decided to look at the problem a bit differently. 

I’d seen in my personal life that the most important person looking after my grandad Doug wasn’t his GP, hospital doctor, nurse or home care support. They all contribute and do a great job for the small amount of time they spend with Doug, but it’s my mum and sister that are the ones there for him day in and day out, helping with shopping, bills, medications, trips, wellbeing and emergency support.

On review, I found out that in the UK alone there are 6.5 million people providing care for their loved ones just like my mum.

Family carers are literally the glue holding the lives of their families together and are the ones that are ideally placed to deliver the social-based preventative care that we set out to deliver.

So, our pivot was simple: rather than add to the catalogue of solutions designed for our 300,000 doctors, that they struggle to use because of lack of capacity, we will focus on the 6.5 million family carers that have been at best, a second thought, in health tech innovation.

It just makes sense. Family carers are 10x our biggest workforce in the health system and they do it for free. 

So, we decided to focus. We wanted to empower family carers with the tools, support services and solutions to help them to provide care to people like Doug. Helping with accessible devices to help monitor and support their loved ones and access to real-time support and guidance on how to deliver preventative care. We also focused on how important it is for carers to look after themselves, with access to on-demand care coaches to guide, support and listen.  

Time to grow

With our refocused approach guided by our discussion with the AHSN, we started to receive more support and traction. 

With support from the AHSN, we applied for and won a Small Business Research Institute (SBRI) grant. With that, we completed the development of our home hub units, and an initial trial in the summer of 2020 with promising results.

During the study, we embedded ourselves within a local NHS facility, built close connections with our users and the carers’ community. We learnt a lot, and with a letter of support from the AHSN, successfully won a grant of nearly £700k as part of SBRI Phase 2. With the grant, we’ve now significantly grown our team and also the breadth of the solutions and services we provide.

As we’ve grown so has our model. Although we design and build devices, we’re not a device company. We’re all about carer support and empowerment. Our model is designed so that it doesn’t require any effort at all from the local care and social teams to implement. They are busy enough (especially right now!).

We can be commissioned to provide end-to-end support for family carers, which is increasingly important to help kick start the Integrated Care Systems emerging within the UK.

What I’ve learnt

Last year I was lucky enough to visit Iceland. It was an amazing location and trip, but crazy cold. One day we went out to spot Whales and Dolphins. The boat was rocking as we went out, people started being sick all over the place and up on deck we got battered by the wind. 

That boat trip was like my life as a Founder. The world of a Founder can feel cold, lonely and exposed – you’re not quite sure where you’re going or what will happen when you get there. There’s constant jostling and with a group of people literally in the same boat as me, the company and mission grew. 

During our journey, the AHSN has helped us. They’ve steered our ship and introduced us to people, and like my gear on that boat, they’ve provided us with a layer of protection from the wind. Helping us find our place, fund our trip, and give us every chance we have of seeing something magical on the horizon.

Here are some tips on what you can expect when working with an AHSN:

  1. Do your research – Each region has its own AHSN, but broadly they offer the same support and services. Log on to their site and do your homework on how they can support you validate your idea, understand the market and identify funding.
  2. Expect and embrace honest feedback – Ideas are cheap and rarely original. We all build on the shoulders of those that came before us. Be prepared for some blunt and honest feedback to help you understand how achievable your idea is as a business. Great ideas rarely turn into great businesses. In healthcare more than anywhere it’s about timing and the health commercial landscape more than in any other sector. The AHSN will help you understand that side and provide constructive feedback before you commit to a mortgage!
  3. Come forward – The AHSNs will work with you, but not for you. They’ll give you the opportunities but you need to grab them with both hands and make sure you are in the driving seat. It’s your business and you need to steer your ship. If you do that you may even get to see your own whales and dolphins!

Find out more about Bridgit Care