The new Innovative Health Initiative (IHI) has prompted companies in the medical technology industry to think about taking part in more EU projects. For some, this is a new opportunity to build on existing experience. For others, it’s a new venture. With the right preparation, there are real benefits on offer thanks to this exciting and unprecedented collaboration.
The IHI is a public-private partnership through which the EU and the European life science industry co-fund projects focused on key challenges facing healthcare. It builds on the hugely successful Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI) but with a key difference: the IHI includes medical technology companies, as well as those working in digital health, biotechnology, vaccines and pharmaceuticals.
For those keen to learn more, there may be many questions: What are the benefits? What is the workload? How much should we invest first? Is it worth it? To help those preparing to take their first steps into an EU innovation consortium, we asked three companies to share their insights and experience of such projects.
Be ambitious: Identify a challenge that’s too big to tackle alone
A key attraction of building broad networks of industry, healthcare professionals and academic experts is their potential to become greater than the sum of their parts. Some challenges are just too complex or too risky for one company – or even for one industry or a single scientific discipline – to solve without collaboration. That is one of the key things that Dr Philippe Cleuziat, Senior Director at the Open Innovation & Partnerships Department of bioMérieux, has learned from engaging with European partners.
‘Identify the main challenges your company is not able to tackle alone, and which require additional skills and funding.’
Dr Philippe Cleuziat, Senior Director at the Open Innovation & Partnerships Department of bioMérieux
‘Identify the main challenges your company is not able to tackle alone, and which require additional skills and funding,’ he advises. ‘Share with peers to identify those willing to address identical or complementary issues. Involve both R&D and strategic marketing to select priority topics in advance.’
The COMBACTE-CDI project gave bioMérieux a chance to join forces with others on an initiative which aimed to contribute to improved prevention and treatment options for C. difficile, an antibiotic resistant bacterium. Partners included GSK, Pfizer, and universities in the UK, Germany and the Netherlands. COMBACTE-CDI allowed bioMérieux to remain connected to key opinion leaders and clinical leaders in an area of high unmet public health need.
‘We were very satisfied to work in full collaboration and with a strong team spirit with our academic and industry peers, which helped to further improve some proprietary solutions and products,’ says Dr Cleuziat. The consortium exchanged scientific knowledge and conducted a large epidemiology study to quantify the burden of C. difficile across Europe. The initiative was a great example of how diverse partners can be strong when working together.
The administrative workload was handled primarily by the project coordinator, and internal teams were put in place to ensure on-time delivery of the company’s work. Allocating additional resources to dissemination could have further increased the impact and awareness of this work, Dr Cleuziat noted. Overall, the company found COMBACTE-CDI to be a very positive experience, and this first IMI-funded project for the company helped convince about the benefits of such public-private partnership schemes.
As a leading diagnostics company, bioMérieux contributed to PCR testing and a new bioinformatics tool and software suite that allows the comparison of genome sequences of multiple strains of bacteria. While a short-term financial return is not the key goal, the company benefited from feedback on its solutions which supported their improvement.
Do it right from the beginning: Dedicate a team to drive the project
Philips has been involved in multiple EU projects over several years. They have done it all, from providing technology and funds, to managing work packages and coordinating large projects. Peter Zandbergen, a programme manager at Philips, says the experience usually delivers great satisfaction. Companies interested in exploring new projects should look at how they can build on existing networks and be willing to embark on building new ecosystems, he adds.
‘Prepare to build a solid network and proposal in good time and be aware of the long duration of the commitment one is getting into.’
Peter Zandbergen, Programme manager at Philips
Measuring the precise tangible return on investment remains a challenge but, the fact that Philips continues to embrace public private partnerships speaks for itself. The company has also invested in appointing experts to handle the ‘red tape’ that comes with complex European partnerships.
If there were room for improvement, Mr Zandbergen suggests that ensuring sufficiently high success rates for project applications is key to keeping industry involved. Given the effort required to prepare an application, companies need to have some degree of confidence that well-prepared proposals have a good chance of success.
In addition, he has two tips for other companies exploring EU projects for the first time: ‘Prepare to build a solid network and proposal in good time and be aware of the long duration of the commitment one is getting into.’
Start small, think big: build experience and expertise over time
Medtronic is another company with experience of large European initiatives. GATEKEEPER, an ongoing flagship project that the company coordinates, focuses on improving chronic disease management using smart data driven solution such as big data, AI and the Internet of Things (IoT). It runs until March 2023 in collaboration with almost 50 partners from industry and academia, as well as governments and health systems from Europe and Asia. The project is 70% funded by the European Commission and is gathering data from more than 40,000 citizens.
‘Start with smaller roles if your company has no previous experience, perhaps as a technology provider or advisor.’
Dr Nathalie Virag, Scientist at Medtronic
Dr Nathalie Virag, a distinguished scientist at Medtronic, says that the primary motivation is the opportunity to work with a diverse group of organisations in an EU-backed project. The company’s experience prepared it to take the leadership role in GATEKEEPER where Jorge Posada and Paula Curras drive the project. As coordinator, Medtronic is in close contact with the European Commission and all key relevant partners. Moreover, this kind of initiative provides the opportunity to attend international events in the medical technology innovation field as well as engage with other European initiatives.
To manage the administrative role, a full-time position has been devoted to the project. Additionally, other Medtronic functions such as legal and financial units, are supporting the project in relation to intellectual property rights and economic issues among the different organisations.
Dr Virag’s advice to companies is not to underestimate the amount of work and time needed to coordinate a project. ‘Start with smaller roles if your company has no previous experience, perhaps as a technology provider or advisor,’ she says. ‘Secure support from your legal and financial functions as they are key to running such projects.’ In addition, Medtronic gathers experience from across the company by sharing knowledge and best practices so that the organisation continues to learn and improve in its EU project work.
We’ll help you take the first step
In summary, joining EU projects should be viewed as an opportunity. Beyond these three examples reported by global companies, some much smaller companies have benefited from EU-funded collaborative projects.
The first step is a strategic decision from the C-suite to invest into exploring EU research opportunities. Once the mechanics are known, even if it can be time consuming to begin with, there is a real chance to expand your R&D portfolio beyond your core projects, at limited costs and limited risks.
Working in a network and in an open innovation environment with a wide panel of stakeholders is a unique specificity of the Europe ecosystem.
So, what are you waiting for? Contact MedTech Europe. We can help you to think about the problem you want to solve, find the right partners, and go for it!