The government has offered £4 million funding for businesses to develop cutting-edge ideas to address some of the nation's biggest health problems.

The Department of Health (DH) has opened two new competitions with up to £2 million of funding each to develop technological and innovative solutions that can: - change people's behaviour in order to reduce the impact of obesity and alcohol-related diseases; and - improve the number of patients taking their medication as prescribed.

These issues are major health challenges, with alcohol and obesity-related diseases costing the NHS over £7 billion a year and as much as 50% of prescribed medication not being taken as recommended, resulting in 6%-10% of all hospital admissions each year.

Solutions to these challenges "could be anything from a device which helps people monitor what they eat or drink, or a personalised care package to help people take their medication as prescribed," the Department suggests.

The competitions will be run through the Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI), the programme of open competitions for ideas and new technologies which is championed by UK innovation agency the Technology Strategy Board. They are open to all organisations, not just those in the health care sector.

One of the measures set out in the Treasury and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills' (BIS) Plan for Growth last March was that the DH is committing £10 million to SBRI competitions that address healthcare challenges. Then in December, the Innovation, Health and Wealth agenda reported that the Department would be doubling its investment in SBRI to £20 million.

"The SBRI process enables government to engage with innovative ideas from industry, acting as a lead customer to address intractable challenges," said Iain Gray, chief executive of the Technology Strategy Board. "It is really positive to see DH and the NHS, building on their experience of previous successful SBRI competitions, using this approach to address new areas and drive innovation,” he added.

"Technology and innovation have an important role to play in helping to address the healthcare challenges facing the NHS. That is why we are investing £20 million in new and creative ideas and projects which can make a difference to patients' lives," said Health Minister Lord Howe, while NHS chief executive Sir David Nicholson noted that the competitions will provide vital funding for businesses to explore, develop and test new technology before it becomes commercially available. 

"Investing in innovation is vital for a modern and efficient NHS - it will benefit the patient, the taxpayer and UK plc. The SBRI is a key part of the Innovation, Health and Wealth agenda, which aims to spread innovation throughout the NHS," said Sir David.

NHS London will manage the process for the competition on changing behaviour to reduce the impact of obesity and alcohol-related diseases, for which the deadline for applications is June 1, while NHS Midlands and East will manage the competition aiming to improve the number of patients taking their medication as prescribed, which has a deadline for applications of May 18.

- The SBRI is co-ordinated by the Technology Strategy Board and is designed to encourage government departments and other agencies to ensure that a proportion of their procurement budget goes to innovative companies, and that they are procuring innovative solutions to some of the challenges that they face. The Initiative aims to use the power of government procurement to drive technology development, especially in early-stage companies, supporting projects through the stages of prototyping and demonstration, which are typically hard to find, says the DH.

To find out more about the competitions, a briefing session will be held for businesses in London on April 12. Further details are available at the SBRI website: