Merck Sharp & Dohme and Telefonica's Wayra UK have unveiled the next focus of their digital health innovation accelerator programme, calling on tech start-ups to "re-imagine healthcare" with the help of artificial intelligence and machine learning.

For 2018, the groups' Velocity Health programme will offer two start-ups using technology to support disease and illness prevention up to £68,000 in funding and acceleration services.

Under the scheme, two firms will be chosen to take part in a 10-month accelerator programme, getting access to a network of mentors, coaches and investors that will "nurture entrepreneurial talent and technological expertise" to help drive the development of innovative products destined to redefine future care.

The Velocity Health accelerator was launched in 2016 with the aim of investing in digital innovations targeting the challenges outlined in the NHS Five Year Forward View, to help improve patient outcomes while closing a funding gap that is estimated at some £30 billion.

The programme's initial focus was on early diagnosis and identifying new ways of preventing disease that are essential in responding to the health and economic challenges outlined, while the second tranche called for "radical solutions" to improving the treatment and care of patients with diabetes and helping cancer patients self-manage recovery.

Junaid Bajwa, director of Healthcare Services at MSD, said: “Velocity Health 2018 aims to build on the achievements of the previous two years of Velocity Health and work with start-ups that truly complement the future of healthcare delivery. The NHS has made digital excellence the cornerstone of its future model and we must embrace this if we are to have a healthcare system fit for the 21st Century.”

Gary Stewart, Director of Wayra UK and Telefónica Open Future (UK), added: “Breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and machine learning are changing our lives in ways never previously thought possible, and it makes sense for us to seek brilliant entrepreneurs who can harness the power of data to improve the NHS and healthcare services globally, potentially transforming the lives of billions.”