Fostering innovation to the benefit of patients - interview with Graham Watson, executive chair at Glasgow-based InnoScot Health
The Glasgow-based organisation – formerly known as Scottish Health Innovations Limited – says it has been working in partnership with NHS Scotland for more than two decades to “inspire, accelerate, and commercialise impactful healthcare innovations”, encouraging new ideas from health and social care staff.
Mr Watson previously spent much of his career working with high-growth companies, and the former investment banker, whose CV includes serving as a partner at Deloitte, is credited with having initiated and executed more than 100 corporate transactions valued at in excess of £2 billion altogether.
Can you explain what your role and goals as InnoScot Health executive chair entail, and how you made the move into the public sector from the private sector?
My role is to lead and empower colleagues to deliver the InnoScot Health strategy. We are focused on harnessing entrepreneurial talent within NHS Scotland, accelerating impactful healthcare innovations and enhancing health, social and economic outcomes in Scotland.
We have been enormously successful over the past 21 years, and yet I believe we are still only scratching the surface of the vast potential within the NHS. My goals are to grow both the volume and impact of innovative ideas we support – for patient benefit, but also to help generate a financial return to NHS Scotland and better support the many innovators working in the NHS.
My earlier corporate career in investment banking, working in Scotland and the US, gave me a deep appreciation of what makes a successful entrepreneur, and what drives an innovative corporate culture. InnoScot Health receives core funding from the Scottish Government, but operates on the edge of public/private collaborations, where my experience in supporting high-growth companies and entrepreneurs is particularly relevant. Moving into the world of healthcare innovation was therefore quite natural.
You also chair a wide range of other organisations eg Tennis Scotland, the Panmure House Advisory Board, and Aurum Biosciences – can you give more insight into this?
I enjoy bringing my career experiences to organisations that both stimulate me and can contribute to improving the country’s social and economic fabric. Adam Smith, who is considered the “father of economics”, said: “No society can surely be flourishing and happy of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.” I currently chair the board of Panmure House, Smith’s final home in Edinburgh, which exists to provide world-influencing social and economic debate and research, effect positive change, and forge global, future-focused networks. I enjoy balancing the demands of involvement in a variety of organisations.
Covid-19 brought the role of healthcare innovation to the forefront of people’s minds, while InnoScot Health in 2022 rebranded. To what extent have the organisation’s remit and ambitions changed in recent years?
At its core, InnoScot Health is still doing today what it did when it was set up in 2002. Back then it was recognised that investment in research and development could be maximised through the establishment of a Technology Transfer Office. This was to ensure innovative ideas from NHS were identified, protected, and properly developed, leading to new products, improved interventions and services for patients, greater efficiency, and wider benefits for society. That office is now InnoScot Health.
We have since expanded our services in vital areas such as regulatory affairs – an area with a severe skills shortage in Scotland. Covid-19 also materially changed the way health boards think about opportunities for advancement, and we are seeing more focus on innovation. It is a time of transition, but it is positive.
InnoScot Health has to date protected more than 250 NHS ideas and produced at least seven spin-out companies – can you give any further targets in this regard and how can fostering innovation and tech help tackle the NHS backlog in the near term, and ultimately help benefit patients more broadly?
We have delivered successful innovations into service across Scotland, and further afield, but with the diversity of the NHS workforce and its appetite to be part of change and transformation, we know we can do more to inspire innovative ideas. In this respect, we have a range of targeted active innovation calls open in areas of priority need – from pregnancy and perinatal to sustainability and frailty. Each focuses on encouraging new ideas.
We further provide ongoing support to our existing spin-outs. A particular target is to see one of them deliver both transformational healthcare improvements and a significant financial return for ourselves, the NHS, and the innovators involved.
Aurum Biosciences – a spin-out in which we are still a shareholder – is one such opportunity. This pioneer in multi-indication treatment and diagnostic technology is initially focused on stroke treatment. Stroke therapies are a growing area of strategic significance and there is a societal need for better treatments and diagnostics in tandem with a growing financial opportunity. To see Aurum Biosciences’ stroke technology enter the market could be game-changing.
You recently highlighted the necessity for NHS Scotland to retain commercially astute healthcare professionals, saying they can still pursue their entrepreneurial ambitions alongside their clinical work. Why is this so key? Does it in some ways mirror you being able to marry business skills and healthcare aims as InnoScot Health executive chair?
It is essential that the inherent innovative capabilities of the many healthcare specialists we are fortunate to have in the NHS be maximised. We know the healthcare system is experiencing challenges. At the same time, we know from a recent survey we conducted that staff see themselves as a major part of the solution – 64 per cent classed themselves as innovators, so it is essential that the system become more supportive of innovation-minded talent. I see marrying business skills and healthcare aims as one of the core requirements of leading InnoScot Health. Similar skills can be of huge value within the NHS.
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