Blog posts

Unleashing the Potential of UK MedTech

Authors: Professor James Moore Jr, Yunus Kutlu

We have no shortage of innovative ideas or talented people in MedTech in this country. But in my eleven years as a professor of medical device design at Imperial, I’ve seen countless good ideas go to waste. At the Centre for Sectoral Economic Performance, we are investigating why this is and what industry, government and academia can do to change it.

MedTech’s outsize contribution to the UK economy

MedTech is any technology that a clinician might use to improve or to save a patient’s life – from pacemakers to prosthetic limbs, MRI scans to plasters. The UK sector, which is mostly SMEs, employs 163,00 people and has an annual turnover of £36 billion.[1]

Despite being half the size of Biopharmaceuticals in terms of jobs, MedTech contributes £13.5 billion to the UK economy annually, about the same as Biopharma’s £15 billion. Its annual growth rate between 2016 and 2020 was 19% – far higher than Biopharma’s 3%.[2]

But the MedTech sector’s remarkable vitality is in spite – not because – of government policy. Regulatory uncertainty, scarce funding, and ineffective NHS procurement processes make it extremely difficult for MedTech inventions to develop into viable businesses.

The Peezy: a breakthrough device now withdrawn from the UK

Forte Medical’s Peezy device, invented in the UK but now only available in the US, is a dispiritingly typical example.[3]

NHS GP Dr Vincent Forte invented the Peezy and founded Forte Medical with his sister Giovanna in 2002. The Peezy is a cheap-to-produce device which makes midstream urine samples easier to collect. Forte Medical made a prototype, secured a patent, then ran real-world trials which showed that the Peezy radically reduces the risk of contamination, and therefore the unnecessary prescription of antibiotics. The potential benefits to the NHS were enormous.

Yet twenty-two years since the invention of the Peezy, NHS doctors are still sending female patients – sometimes heavily pregnant, sometimes elderly and frail – to surgery toilets with tiny sample vials and near impossible-to-follow instructions. Due to siloed budgets, resistance to change and lack of incentives for adoption, Forte Medical has withdrawn completely from the UK NHS market.

I see similar stories time and again. In just over a decade at Imperial, I have helped ten spinout companies form out of my department. One has been highly successful at securing investment. Two or three are just about managing. The rest have foundered. This doesn’t inspire our students to pursue biomedical engineering and develop MedTech devices.

The policy solution: certainty, funding, and procurement

But it’s a story we can change. With focused industry/government interventions, the UK can unleash the full potential of UK MedTech.

First and most pressingly, MedTech companies need regulatory certainty.

Because the UK represents only 3% of the global market, UK MedTech companies prioritise exports. Post-Brexit, the UK adopted its own regulatory framework, based on the EU’s Medical Device Directive (MDD) and overseen by the MHRA. But the EU’s ongoing transition to the Medical Device Regulation (MDR) means that 70% of UK-made devices will soon be noncompliant. It may also lead to some life-saving technologies being unavailable to NHS patients.

The MHRA should align regulations with those of the MDR and the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Outside those frameworks, there are opportunities to make the UK a more desirable destination for clinical trials of cutting-edge technologies. The Treasury should increase MHRA’s budget to that end.

Second, MedTech companies need better access to funding.

While the MedTech sector produces more university spinouts than Biopharma, the underlying research funding base for MedTech is only one fifteenth the size of the funding available to Biopharma. Sources of grant funding for MedTech SMEs are limited to Innovate UK and the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR), where only about half of the applications determined to be viable actually get funded. Private investment is scarce and concentrated towards established companies.

So the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) should increase funding for NIHR and Innovate UK to a sufficient level that all viable projects can receive funding.

Finally, MedTech companies need the NHS to overhaul its innovation and procurement culture. The NHS’s ineffective procurement processes make it difficult for MedTech firms to access the UK market. It also prevents UK patients from reaping the benefits of the NHS’s position as an ideal testing ground for new technologies.

Universities must push for tailored support for MedTech spinouts

The government must do more to support the UK’s special position as a market primed for MedTech innovation. There are more MedTech spinouts than any other type of university spinout.

University innovation and entrepreneurship programmes should also provide tailored support for MedTech spinouts. Imperial’s new venture fund, Science Capital, will provide Imperial’s entrepreneurs access to capital and proof-of-concept funding to realise the full potential of their businesses.

MedTech is a key research area for both the White City Deep Tech Campus and the Centre for Sectoral Economic Performance, who sponsored our analysis of the UK MedTech sector.

The detailed policy recommendations in the resulting report should form a central input to a government wishing to develop a growth strategy for the country – they show how these industries could increase the UK’s global competitiveness and value added per capita. If the recommendations are implemented, there’s almost no limit to the good that MedTech can do – not only for the UK economy but for patients all around the world.[4]

Professor James Moore is the Bagrit Chair in Medical Device Design at the Department of Bioengineering, and co-author of ‘Sectoral Systems of Innovation and the UK’s Competitiveness: The UK MedTech Sector’ published by the Centre for Sectoral Economic Performance. He does research on the lymphatic system, initiated two degree programmes in MedTech entrepreneurship and has co-founded five MedTech startup companies.

The Centre for Sectoral Economic Performance at Imperial College London investigates how to improve the competitiveness of the UK economy and drive economic growth. It is a joint initiative between Imperial’s Faculty of Engineering and the Imperial College Business School –bringing together the UK’s top engineers, scientists and economists with the UK’s science and technology industries to co-design globally competitive strategies for major global challenges: like net zero, economic competition and technological disruptions.

[1] 348-IMP-Public-Affairs-3-reports_Medtech_AW_DIGITAL_SINGLES_Sept23.pdf (imperial.ac.uk), p. 17.

[2] 348-IMP-Public-Affairs-3-reports_Medtech_AW_DIGITAL_SINGLES_Sept23.pdf (imperial.ac.uk), p. 9.

[3] Peezy Midstream UK – Forte Medical (forte-medical.co.uk)

[4] 348-IMP-Public-Affairs-3-reports_Medtech_AW_DIGITAL_SINGLES_Sept23.pdf (imperial.ac.uk)

Making Britain a global leader in telecoms regulation

Authors:
Professor Eric Yeatman, Professor Chris Tucci & Dr Marika Iivari.

Telecoms is vital national infrastructure that allows us to communicate with people virtually anywhere, whether we are on the go, at home, or at work. In Britain, the industry is well-established and a handful of major players dominate the market. The sector employs 200,000 people, double that of Germany, and provides £38 billion in GVA to the UK economy annually.[1] The industry is also changing with the arrival of 5G and ultimately 6G and the convergence of telecoms with technology such as AI. This presents an opportunity to make the British economy more productive and competitive. But we can only grasp it with the right environment for telecoms companies to succeed.

Using telecoms to drive UK competitiveness and growth

Imperial’s Centre for Sectoral Economic Performance (CSEP), which launched in January 2024, explores ways to improve Britain’s economic competitiveness and drive economic growth.[2] It looks at areas such as competition and technological disruption that demand a joint business, innovation and policy response. Telecoms is an area that we believe has the potential to transform the British economy’s growth outlook. I co-authored a report which examined the industry in detail and provided a list of policy recommendations.[3]

The value of connections a thousand times faster

When we think of telecoms we might picture home broadband boxes and mobile phones or the masts and cables that support this technology. Yet telecoms is about much more than that. It is almost impossible to run a small business without an internet connection, let alone a hospital or a government department. Telecoms is the enabler for practically every other part of an advanced economy. While it represented 20% of the digital sector’s growth between 2010 and 2019, which in turn contributed £150.6 billion to the British economy in 2019.[4]

Telecoms, then, should not be measured by its GVA alone. As 5G is adopted as the next generation technology standard for cellular networks, and more things come online, this will be even more the case. 5G offers speeds 100 times greater than 4G and downloads much faster than WIFI, but also provides other advantages including support for real-time applications such as autonomous vehicles and virtual reality. Its speed, reliability and new capabilities will mean that for a growing number of systems, such as energy grids, transport networks and hospitals,  the internet will  not just be a means of communication but will be a core part of how they are controlled and managed. 5G adoption will go hand in hand with AI adoption and these technologies will converge to create a new, more powerful, kind of internet.

Productivity gains of £159 billion but an unbalanced investment burden

The rewards are potentially vast. The Department for Science Innovation and Technology predicts productivity gains of £159 billion between now and 2035 on account of 5G.[5] This technology will have other significant uses in Britain, too, whether in reducing carbon emissions or making public services more efficient. This is before we consider 6G, a technology that is expected to come online by the next decade.

None of this is achievable without telecoms companies, but the long-term profitability of the industry is the concern of our report. While companies have invested billions in infrastructure, such as 5G base stations, they can struggle to generate a return on their investment. Meanwhile companies that depend on this infrastructure, such as Amazon, Meta and Google, generate vast profits. Telecoms operators provide the investment burden, but it is non-UK based big tech companies that take the lion’s share of the rewards, with only a handful of major customer-facing content providers based in Britain.

The UK can grasp the rewards with the right regulation

That is not to say British telecoms companies haven’t explored other avenues for growth. In 2022, for instance, BT invested nearly £100 million in the development of business-to-business and business-to-government products that bring together 5G and the internet of things, cloud and edge computing, and AI. The same year, Vodafone and Ericsson partnered in a trial to experiment with virtual reality and network slicing which provided users with an enhanced cloud gaming experience. Yet telecoms companies will not fully grasp opportunities like these without the right regulatory environment. Nor will Britain. It is incumbent, then, on policymakers to change this.

Our report contains thirteen recommendations. Broadly speaking, they refer to deeper collaboration between industry, academia and government to support business innovation; new regulations that include both an international role for Britain in new standard setting and measures to protect the country’s vital telecoms infrastructure and guarantee its strategic autonomy; and the need to consider the broader social and environmental applications of new technologies, particularly where regulation is concerned. The recommendations are spelled out in detail in the report.

The telecoms industry is changing, with the potential to unlock billions for the British economy. Our approach to collaboration and regulation must change too.

Professor Eric Yeatman is a Professor of Electrical Engineering at Imperial College London and co-author of ‘Sectoral Systems of Innovation and the UK’s Competitiveness: The UK Telecommunications Sector’. He is an expert in micro-technologies for sensing, communications and other applications, and has published over 350 papers and patents in these and related areas.   He is Chair and co-founder of I-X, Imperial College’s multi-faculty initiative in AI, and was the co-founder and Chairman of Microsaic Systems. He was awarded the Royal Academy of Engineering Silver Medal in 2011, and was made a Fellow of the Academy in 2012.

The Centre for Sectoral Economic Performance at Imperial College London investigates how to improve the competitiveness and productivity of the UK economy and drive economic growth. It is a joint initiative between Imperial’s Faculty of Engineering and the Imperial College Business School – bringing together the UK’s top engineers, scientists and economists with the UK’s science and technology industries to address the major global challenges facing economies such as net zero, economic competition, and technological disruptions.

[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/dcms-sectors-economic-estimates-monthly-gva-to-december-2022/using-annual-estimates-from-summed-monthly-gva-data-digital

[2] https://www.imperial.ac.uk/sectoral-economic-performance/

[3] https://www.imperial.ac.uk/media/imperial-college/research-and-innovation/the-forum/public/Sectoral-Systems-of-Innovation_Telecommunications_June-2023.pdf

[4] https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/dcms-economic-estimates-2019-gross-value-added/dcms-economic-estimates-2019-provisional-gross-value-added

[5] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/uk-wireless-infrastructure-strategy/uk-wireless-infrastructure-strategy#:~:text=By%20transforming%20our%20economy%2C%20widespread,every%20corner%20of%20the%20country.