In 2019 the European Structural & Investment Funds Investment Priority approved the investment of ERDF funding into the Supporting innovation and Growth in Healthcare Technologies (SIGHT) project. SIGHT aims to support small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) with insight and evidence to ensure that their products meet real and identified market needs along with support and guidance to enter and expand into the healthcare market. 

Professor Gordon Blunn is the Principal Investigator of the SIGHT Programme at the University of Portsmouth. SIGHT provides support for HealthTech SMEs across a broad range of topics including IP protection, regulatory and business development. Upon joining the University of Portsmouth as the Director of the Health and Wellbeing theme in 2017, Professor Blunn was quickly drafted in to lead the ERDF programme alongside Dr Phil Jewell and the larger team.

There are several key objectives of the SIGHT programme. One of these objectives was to enhance business development in SMEs while building relationships and forging collaborations across the University and the Portsmouth University Hospitals NHS Trust (PHU).

Dr Phil Jewell, standing at the front of a lecture theatre

Dr Phil Jewell, Director of Healthtech and SIGHT Programme CEO

Dr Jewell and the SIGHT team proactively facilitate access to clinicians and patient groups to support the co-development of new products and solutions where there are currently unmet needs. SIGHT is guiding SMEs through regulatory and other barriers that had previously limited opportunities for them to expand into new markets; this support has given SMEs the opportunity to grow and compete in regional, national, and international markets. 

A group of people stood smiling in matching blue hoodies

The SIGHT team (L-R) Sharon Court, Lucy Sayer, Yvette Hibberd, Sarah Duckering, Justine Wilkinson, David Lubega, Joe Shoebridge, Louise Pulley, Guy Hembury, Pam Jones, Rob Woolas, Mark Barber. Middle; Claire Anstey, Rosie Mackay, Alex Jones, Helen Hill. Front row; Anoop Chauhan, Phil Jewell, Gordon Blunn.

What has the SIGHT programme achieved?

Our strategic targeted approaches to technology development have produced a number of outcomes, including a proactive approach to supporting our SME members, the webinar series, and our monthly newsletter. Our commitment to business support has been noted and commended by a number of our partners, and has been described by several as a distinctive feature of the programme. The team has engaged (as affiliates of the programme, not members) with eleven companies beyond the borders of England. These companies hail from Scotland, Ireland, Spain, Poland and Singapore and they have participated in both our webinar series and workshops; as a result, they have expressed a desire to explore UK-based opportunities for their businesses. 

Even in the first year of the programme SIGHT has had notable success in applying and winning grant funding. In total, we have achieved over £700k income in partnership with SMEs (e.g. GenomeKey, Airway Medical and Vitality Hub). These involved collaborations between SIGHT SME members, UoP academics and colleagues from PHU with a potential income to UoP of c.£1.2m.

SIGHT accolades: 2,000+ hours of support given to SMEs, £12million worth of joint funding bids submitted , 60+ events held in person and online, 1000+ event attendees, 420+ SMEs engaged with, 225 SME members fully signed up to the programme, 25 SMEs supported with SIGHT grant applications worth c.£200k, 500+ newsletter contracts, 650+ LinkedIn connections, 125+ clinicians, research nurses, trial support staff and academics engaged

The SIGHT Programme has already resulted in a great deal of success and has already exceeded expectations in terms of SME involvement. 

What are the benefits of working with the SIGHT programme?

One of the University of Portsmouth’s strategic goals is to be the ‘Best New University’ by 2030. SIGHT is working intensively towards this goal by collaborating with other Universities’ ERDF programmes; joint events are being organised and cross-divisional collaborations are being established. 

SIGHT has become a conduit mechanism for multiple-level business benefits. Examples of these collaborations include:

  • Co-applications for funding and grants, for both internal and external stakeholders.
  • Student projects being organised between SIGHT members.
  • Brokering deals between SIGHT members and the local authorities.

SIGHT has supported a number of projects which will realise excellent material for REF and KEF case studies and data submissions. In particular an on-going engagement with the DERMA research team has led to the creation of a dedicated case study, as well as support for the organisation of an end of project dissemination event. There is clear scope for SIGHT to support next steps for DERMA through its SME and business network, as well as applying this model to other academic/business projects.

BSc and MSc student projects and work placements are being promoted by SIGHT in a number of academic areas, and the availability of committed, driven and skilled students to carry out short term projects in healthtech is of great interest to SMEs. Indeed, there is scope to put together a dedicated programme in this area, utilising local SMEs in a range of technology and science fields including engineering, AI, health psychology, and gaming.

Professor Blunn, Dr Jewell and the SIGHT team have a number of goals for the ongoing programme. SIGHT is unique in terms of its delivery and achievements. The team wants to continue to build on its success beyond the term of the programme. This is, not only, to benefit the SME members but, also, to help academics enhance their own achievements. By collaborating with SMEs, academics will enhance the impact of their research and increase KEF outputs, which helps to demonstrate how their work positively affects society as a whole.

SIGHT has become a vehicle to generate integration between all the institutions involved and strategic collaborations will continue to grow due to the programme. Prior to SIGHT being established, any collaborations between the University and Hospital were largely one-off events. Now there are strong working relationships being developed and the University and Hospital have a group of joint staff to enhance collaborative efforts. In the future, the team would like to see these relationships expand to other regional Universities to share knowledge, resources, and opportunities. 

The SIGHT programme success has been recognised by the central government who have recently awarded additional funding to extend the programme to March 2023 and we are already looking ahead to the way we might be able to support companies in the future. 

What next for the SIGHT programme?

Professor Blunn would like for SIGHT 2 to be developed to replace SIGHT, once the programme concludes. This would likely aim to work beyond the borders of the Portsmouth network to include other regional institutions e.g. other local NHS Hospital Trusts, local authorities and involvement of UKRI.  He wants the Wessex regions to be the centre for HealthTech SME development in the UK and knows that SIGHT will be an integral part of this success.

Southern Innovation and Growth in Health Technologies (SIGHT – 2) Cluster 

Our Ambition is to bring stakeholders together to create an ambitious and vibrant healthtech network, covering all aspects of the sector ecosystem, that dramatically raises  scale, performance and competitiveness across the region. Create a valued national and  international brand – and in doing so directly benefiting all cluster members. 

The Cluster aims to improve individual and collective performance, as well as to raise both economic output and patient health outcomes. 

The solution to meeting current challenges lies in the development of mechanisms to enable research organisations and healthcare providers in our region to work together in a mutually beneficial manner, in order to help develop the health technologies, platforms and systems of the future.  We propose enshrining these mechanisms under a shared project within our region, the Southern Innovation and Growth in Health Technologies Cluster (SIGHT-2), which would include engagement and representation from all major stakeholders in the medtech research landscape.

In conclusion

Professor Gordon Blunn is delighted with the progress made by the SIGHT Programme. He is especially impressed with the level of engagement between the SME member companies, academics, researchers and clinicians at the University of Portsmouth and Portsmouth University Hospital NHS Trust.

With the global COVID-19 pandemic, Professor Blunn feels the response of the programme has been outstanding. The work of the Programme Manager, Dr Phil Jewell, in transferring efforts towards the academics within the University has demonstrated the immense agility of the programme. Many of the member companies have really benefited from the new levels of integration and interaction, both in terms of business and product development. Professor Blunn is extremely excited about what the SIGHT Programme will achieve in the next few years and beyond.