A call has been put out to small businesses in the UK to take part in a competition seeking to fund the development of novel products and services that could address significant healthcare challenges.

SBRI Healthcare, an NHS England funded initiative, will distribute £5 million to fund feasibility programmes for novel solutions to challenges within seven healthcare areas - cancer; cardiovascular; COPD; diabetes; mental health/dementia; patient safety; and research tools - chosen in partnership with the newly designated Academic Health Science Networks (AHSNs).

Karen Livingstone, National Director of SBRI Healthcare, told PharmaTimes World News that the funding offered by the scheme will help accelerate the pace of programmes that small companies - largely in the med tech arena - might otherwise not have the capacity to make happen.

Under the scheme, successful companies will be eligible for £100,000 to complete the feasibility stage of their ideas, and then potentially up to £1 million for each project taken forward.

Karen says she is hoping to contract about 40 companies in the first round, which should lead to around 30 receiving phase two awards. Around £30 million should be available next year to help fund development of projects post feasibility.

A panel of mixed experts is used to help determine the viability of projects through the process. Venture capitalists and business experts advise on business and marketing plans, but it is clinicians who are "the biggest driving force in deciding whether a particular solution is valid," she stressed.

£17.6m to date

To date, the programme has invested some £17.6 million to support 66 small and medium size enterprises, helping a number of products to market and securing a number of promising projects in the innovation pipeline.

One of the most notable, says Karen, is a project in development by light technology group PolyPhotonix assessing an eye mask for eye diseases such as diabetic retinopathy and age-related macular degeneration.

Early evidence from Phase I and II studies are encouraging, suggesting that the mask - which is completely non-invasive and worn by patients overnight - can stop retinopathy. Phase III trials are currently underway.

If approved, the therapy could save the NHS a significant amount of money, given that the mask's £1,000 per year price tag (which could come down with increased sales volume) is a fraction of that of current standard laser therapy or treatment with Novartis' Lucentis, both of which can also be unpleasant for patients.

"Through the SBRI programme we can find new ways of solving old problems – which benefit patients and support business growth," noted Sir Mike Rawlins, Chair of the Eastern Academic Health Science Network (EAHSN).