Dr. Tony Young, the National Clinical Lead of Innovation at NHS England, on the inspiring successes of the NHS Clinical Entrepreneur Programme


“Why was my cancer picked up so late when I did everything right?” pleaded one of Dr. Bhavagaya Bakshi’s patients when she was completing her physician training in an Accident and Emergency Department six years ago. “He had seen his GP on several occasions over the preceding six months, with several symptoms but to no avail,” recalls Dr. Bakshi. “I quickly organized a scan and later, broke the news to him that he had metastatic pancreatic cancer. He sadly died three weeks later. His question about why he wasn’t diagnosed earlier stuck with me and inspired me to do something about it.”

Alongside Dr. Miles Payling, who was also a junior doctor back then, Dr. Bakshi founded C the Signs, a digital tool leveraging Big Data and AI to identify patients at risk of cancer at the earliest and most curable stage. “There are more than 200 different types of cancers, each with their own symptoms and risk factors. Hence, it’s extremely difficult for a GP to pinpoint the earliest stages of cancer, especially some of these signs overlap with other more common health conditions,” Dr. Bakshi explained. “C the Signs uses AI mapped with the latest evidence to single out the most at-risk individuals, bringing positive impact on cancer referral rates in the areas we are working with.”

C the Signs is one of the many successful stories of the NHS Clinical Enterpreneur Programme (CEP) programme. In fact, according to Dr. Tony Young, the National Clinical Lead of Innovation at NHS England, there were over 220 startups founded in the first four years since the program launched in 2016. They have raised more than £250m between them and created 1300 jobs. While many of these initiatives aren’t the next big Silicon Valley startup, Dr. Young is keen to emphasise that they are ideas that identify and address real challenges people face in clinical settings and provide new clinical service developments.

The concept of CEP came after Dr. Young assumed his current role. At that time, he was meeting representatives of over 1000 companies from around the world each year. Many of them presented him with the so-called “greatest ideas”. Some of them are so novel that they have yet to appear in medical literature, social media and even search engines. “In short, I was a little boy who woke up one day in a toy store and finding myself amongst these amazing things,” Dr. Young said. That was when he realized how significant it would be if the NHS were able to support those who wanted to develop entrepreneurial ideas.

“If you wanted to be a healthcare leader, a researcher or a teacher, we encouraged you to take your careers forward,” Dr. Young adds. “But if you wanted to build a startup, or to be an entrepreneur, we didn’t have any formal support for you.” The CEP was first piloted in a group of junior doctors before rolling out fully-fledged to all NHS staff. Participants will be offered one-to-one commercial mentoring and coaching, bespoke guidance on setting up and running a business, plus a whole range of professional networking, industry days and connections to potential customers and funding.

“We opened the program to all NHS staff who wanted to gain commercial skills, knowledge and experience from the entrepreneurial world to help them transform the NHS,” Dr. Young notes. “We believe the future healthcare workforce includes trying to encourage and inspire people to come forward with new ideas.” However, according to a new report by the British Business Bank, only 49% of UK tech startups received second or more rounds of funding and many would run out of investment before they arrive at the next funding stage.

Investors believe founders of these MedTech startups tend to come from less commercial backgrounds and are staffed by academia. Thus, it’d take years before they see Return of Investment (ROI). This partially explains why foreign capital is concentrated in late-stage rounds. A glaring example would be Google’s $500m purchase of DeepMind in 2014. Recently, UK firms majority-owned by non-UK players have also become a national security concern as the government passed the National Security and Investment Bill last November to block foreign investment in 17 so-called “sensitive” industries.

Despite this, Dr. Young is confident that CEP is the right platform to attract “intrapreneurs”- people who want to transform the NHS from the inside. “They are a new cadre who not only understand but also change and advance medicine and healthcare from a clinical and scientific perspective,” he says. “They are also the facilitators ensuring new skills, tools and technologies are adopted across the system commercially. There’s no need to raise 10 or 100 million pounds to take an idea forward, especially if it has the potential to transform patient care and empower the public health system.”