Can health research communities self-assemble or are they formed from historic collaborations and local regional alliances? Can pan-regional health research communities overcome deeply rooted age-old city rivalries? These are the questions the NHSA was set up to test and I was challenged with when I joined.
When I left my job at a management consultancy firm in London I knew I was stepping into unknown territory. The Northern Health Science Alliance was a concept established by a meeting of 16 founding partners in Manchester in 2011. It had no legal standing, no terms of reference or business plan. But what it did have was the full unwavering support of its founding partners, eight NHS Trust Chief Executives and eight University Deans of Medicine. Later it would also come to gain the support of the North’s four Academic Health Science Network’s senior leadership.
On day one when I headed out North from Kings Cross for my first set of meetings with the NHSA Founders it came as a surprise that I started receiving emails from a number of the people I was about to meet informing me that they would be individually bidding for and competing against other NHSA members for the Innovate UK Precision Medicine Catapult (PMC).
Yet within a few weeks, using the vision and buy in of the NHSA founders we had formed a strong sense of the North’s combined health research and delivery capabilities in precision medicine, with the agreement that the North should, for the first time, submit a single application for the PMC, utilising its full firepower.
The result? The North secured two PM Catapult nodes and more importantly, has become recognised as a centre for strength in Precision Medicine.
Now the many members of the NHSA use us as an umbrella for bids as far ranging as coordinated approaches to Wellcome, MRC, Innovate, NHS England and the Department of Health. Only last month the NHSA was asked to help coordinate a call of the North’s eHealth research leaders to discuss the landscape of upcoming funding calls. Now than ever there is a sense that hunting in a pack is more cost effective and impactful.
This example and the many I have witnessed over the past few years suggests to me that the North of England has become one of the most collaborative and engaged health economies in the UK – perhaps internationally. Few global health clusters can boast a 15m population and an overall £300bn economic output.
What was it five years ago that brought this collection of eight communities of care together?
A combination of factors that included the recognition of the ever growing health inequality between North and South, the increasing spotlight on the ‘golden triangle’ for industry and public sector investment and the understanding that in a global health economy the North would be stronger together.
Leadership was also a key factor. Professor Ian Jacobs, the then Dean of Medicine at the University of Manchester and now Vice Chancellor of the University of New South Wales, set out to build a consensus that the North should work together to drive collaboration in research and education in health sciences, reducing health inequality by bringing new opportunities to and making the case for investment from government and the private commercial sector into the North.
It very rapidly became clear that the combined strengths across all eight cities and the 16 partner organisations of the NHSA represented a powerful and large scale biomedical and health enterprise.
Over the past five years we have established the NHSA as a company with cross member representation and agreement on the core delivery functions and remits of the organisation. The NHSA is now delivering for its partners, a good example of this is the NHSA’s flagship project Health North: Connected Health Cities (CHC). CHC is a £20m project working across the North of England uniting local health data and advanced technology to improve health services for patients in Northern England.
We now have a number of pan-regional projects at various stages of delivery which have all been made possible through the establishment of the NHSA. We have also helped to establish countless industrial partnerships for R&D with venture capital firms, SMEs from across the world and multinational corporates from the biotech, medtech, pharma and digital health sectors from clusters in the US, Europe, India, Singapore and Scandinavia.
We have established an effective health science ecosystem from scratch but that has been successful only because of the commitment, support and enthusiasm of the health leadership across the North, its recognition of each other’s strengths and willingness to put geographic differences to one side to work towards a common goal. This, in the long term, will benefit the North and the UK as a whole.
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