Friday, 31 October 2008

Saving lives and making money

This Wednesday I was a member of a panel judging the best business ideas emerging from the UK's medical sector, the culmination of the annual Medical Futures innovation awards competition. It was a real eye opener as I knew nothing about the health care sector and unlike so many web ideas that claim to change peoples lives, every one of the ideas I heard really would, literally!

For example, a British chap called Dr A. Brain (yes, it's true) invented the anaesthesists mask in the picture in his bedroom. It's now used in millions of operations around the world and Archie Brain is living in the lap of luxury.

The judging panel was very impressive (present company excepted), Sir Anthony Jolliffe the former Lord Mayor of London, Sir Chris O'Donnell, most recently Chief Executive of Smith & Nephew, Dr Ian Goldin of Oxford University and former Vice President of the World Bank and several others of equal stature.

The handful of pitches we saw were the best of the best of literally hundreds of ideas that have emerged from all corners of the health sector over the past year and been pitched to judging panels up and down the country. It is amazing that this staggering wealth of innovation is going on out there and is largely unrecognised and unharnessed. However, the sector has some real challenges for entrepreneurs.

Firstly, like me, the average entrepreneur has no idea what these Doctors are talking about. I spent several hours squirming away as the Doctors displayed various new devices and explained what was going to go wrong with me and how they could delay my demise by a few years, if only I give them a few £million. Mine you, it's a powerful pitch!

Secondly, in this medical game it seems that you create your proposition and then spend the next two years getting regulators around the world to approve it. Imagine if us tech entrepreneurs had to get someone to approve our propositions for two years before we were even allowed to launch them. We'd all be out of business before we started!

The big problem though is similar to a problem that us UK tech entrepreneurs have. If you want to build a large scale medical business then you have got to get in to the huge USA market as early as possible. Listening to the challenges that these businesses face opening up the US market, its exactly the same as the rest of us, except with higher stakes. I heard pitches involving ideas that are clearly better - as in "will save more lives/relieve more pain" - than what's available now but unless they can get the funding, team, approval to penetrate the US market then these amazing ideas may never see the light of day. It's shocking.

So, good luck to all the medical industry entrepreneurs and I would really encourage the VCs out there to take a good look at what's going on. The easiest way to do that is to get in touch with Medical Futures - they seem to pretty much see every promising idea coming out of the UKs health sector.

And I really hope one of those ideas in particular makes it out in to the market. Then at least I can save my money on answering those junk emails :)

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