- UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and health minister Matt Hancock held a meeting with healthcare startups, big tech firms, and major healthcare players on Tuesday to discuss how they could help tackle the coronavirus pandemic.
- Unicorn healthcare firm Babylon and blood-testing company Thriva, two of the UK’s most prominent healthtech startups, sat alongside representatives from Amazon, Boots and Swiss healthcare firm Roche.
- Hamish Grierson, CEO of Thriva, attended the roundtable. He told Business Insider it left him feeling businesses throughout the sector were ‘stepping up to the plate’.
- Other healthtech startups such as Patchwork, Pando and Nye Health say they have seen a ‘massive’ surge in demand in recent weeks.
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The UK government has approached at least two healthtech startups to help in the fight against coronavirus, with many in the sector reporting a surge in demand nationwide.
The British healthtech sector is significant, with close to 4,000 companies producing a combined annual turnover of £24 billion ($28 billion), according to the Association of British Healthtech Industries.
In a meeting attended by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and health secretary Matt Hancock on Tuesday, executives from Amazon, Boots and Swiss healthcare firm Roche were joined by two of the UK’s most prominent healthtech startups, Babylon and Thriva.
According to Hamish Grierson, chief executive and founder of Thriva, which offers customers at-home blood tests, those present offered the government suggestions on how they could help scale up the number of coronavirus tests available to the public.
The health secretary has promised to boost the number of hospital patients being tested for COVID-19 to 25,000 a day within the next four weeks. At present, only around 5,000 are being tested in the UK every day.
Speaking to Business Insider, Grierson said the meeting left him feeling industry leaders were “stepping up to the plate”, adding that increasing the number of coronavirus tests was a clear priority for the government.
“Given our speciality is getting tests out to people at scale, we thought there could be a role for us,” he said.
“There’s no concrete next step for us at the moment – but we are actively assessing how we can be most useful to the government moving forward.”
He said Ali Parsa, chief executive of Babylon Health, which offers a chatbot service allowing users to check their symptoms against NHS recommendations, attended the roundtable.
The meeting followed a similar gathering of UK tech leaders, convened by the PM’s chief advisor Dominic Cummings, last week.
One senior tech entrepreneur present at that meeting, who spoke to Business Insider on the condition of anonymity, said Cummings appeared to have “a very clear sense of purpose” with regards to the role healthtech could play in the NHS in the future.
“By the time the dust has settled on all this, I think we will have had a major rethink of how technology is deployed within our health service,” they said. “I think Cummings knows how to turn a crisis into an opportunity.”
When approached by Business Insider, Babylon wouldn’t say if it had attended the Westminster meeting on Tuesday, but said it had been “approached by many governments and health authorities” to help combat coronavirus.
The firm added: “These are not simple decisions and each government is deciding for itself how companies can best help.”
UK healthtech startups see a surge in interest
Meanwhile three other emerging players in the British healthtech sector – Patchwork, Pando and Nye Health — reported surges in demand and an outpouring of goodwill from commercial partners.
Alexander Finlayson, chief exec at Nye, which provides encrypted communications tech for doctors to communicate with patients remotely, said their cybersecurity and digital infrastructure partners had significantly cut their rates.
“They offered to reduce their costs just because they know we’re responding to a crisis,” he told Business Insider. “It’s extraordinary.”
Finlayson said the firm was signing new partnerships with NHS trusts and hospitals “every hour”, with an estimated user growth rate of 25% per week.
Dr Anas Nader, co-founder and CEO of Patchwork, which helps locum doctors pick up shifts at short-staffed hospitals, said new technologies were being rapidly integrated into the NHS in order to deal with the pandemic.
“In healthcare, it can sometimes take months or years for things to change,” he said. “But now we’re seeing technology being adopted in a matter of days and weeks.”
Patchwork is currently used by 32 healthcare institutions in the UK, a figure that looks set to rise rapidly. Nader said: “We’ve seen some increase in demand. It’s early days yet, but I think we’re going to start seeing the impact this will have on staff numbers in the coming weeks.”
Philip Mundy, cofounder of Pando, a communications app connecting more than 40,000 medical professionals across the country, said he had “never before seen so much collaboration”.
Pando acts as a kind of “WhatsApp for doctors”, meaning they can sign up with their NHS emails and have one-to-one and group conversations with their colleagues at their own institution and across the country, allowing them share to new information and best practice.
He told Business Insider: “It’s no exaggeration to say we’ve seen more demand in the last two weeks than we had in the previous 12 months.”
In a statement issued on Wednesday, Matt Hancock said: “”Public safety is my top priority, and radically ramping up testing for coronavirus is a key part of our plan to protect lives.
“We are already among the best in the world for coronavirus testing and today we are launching a national effort to increase our testing capability even further.”
Any business in a position to help the government step up its coronavirus testing capabilities is asked to contact officials on COVIDdiagnostics@phe.gov.uk.
Business Insider approached Amazon, Boots and Roche for comment.