Burning Man and Innovation - What's the connection?

What is Burning Man? 

Some call it the biggest party on the planet. Wikipedia mentions that it is described as an experiment in community, art, radical self-expression, and radical self-reliance. The Burning Man website says that trying to explain what Burning Man is to someone who has never been to the event is a bit like trying to explain what a particular colour looks like to someone who is blind.

It's linked to startup culture, since Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google was hired by Sergey Brin, and Larry Page in 2001, partly because "He was the only candidate who had been to Burning Man". I remember spending 2 days during 2012 at an unconference in Google's Mountain View headquarters. In one of the buildings, I noticed many photographs of Burning Man plastered over multiple walls. One of my hosts told me, he takes his entire team from Google to Burning Man each year. 

I heard that many startups are created during those 8 days in the dusty Nevada desert each year. If you stand up at many tech events in Silicon Valley and ask the 'burners' in the room to put their hands up, a lot of hands go up! ['Burner' is the term used to describe people that have attended] Whatever your opinion, it's most definitely a unique experience. Trying to reach many of my friends in Silicon Valley when Burning Man occurs is usually tough, as many are at Black Rock City.

Why did I attend? 

I tracked down one of the motorised cupcakes the next morning.

I tracked down one of the motorised cupcakes the next morning.

It was 2010, I was on my 6 month round the world trip. I had no plans to visit the USA during my journey, but a very good friend who had been to Burning Man in 2009, insisted that I needed to go. He told me that this would change my life. Nothing would prepare me for what I was going to experience. He was right as I'm still digesting the experience of attending Burning Man, 4 years later! 

The experience

It's simply staggering, how 50,000 strangers come together and build a city in the desert, including streets!  How do you describe riding a bike at 2am in the desert, and hearing a stranger call out, "Dude, you're awesome!"? Zooming alongside me, was a guy driving a motorised cupcake, decorated with flashing lights.

One of the 10 principles of Burning Man, is gifting. I will never forget walking down one of the main streets on an extremely hot day, and seeing a queue of people. Someone was gifting ice cream! Another principle is radical inclusion. There was an amazing atmosphere of tolerance and acceptance. Nobody was judging you. I recall walking down the street, and a guy in a yellow alien outfit needed help finding the toilets. His costume didn't fit very well, and he couldn't see out of it easily. As I helped him to his destination, we chatted. It turns out his was a high flying corporate lawyer from Washington, DC. Yes, there were quite a few naked people wandering around as well, including some very beautiful women! At first, it was really bizarre. After a couple of days, you just got used to another of those 10 principles, Radical Self-expression. 


I'll never forget meeting a chap called 'Mitch' one day, who was from Montana. He was mid 50s, and his wife had just left him. Instead of lounging in self-pity, he packed a small backpack, grabbed his bicycle and cycled alone 800 miles south to take part in Burning Man. Mitch had run out of food & water after 3 days in his tent. So I invited him to our 'camp' to have dinner with us, and we learned more about his life story. Another one of the principles, is Radical Self-reliance. 

How did it impact my approach to innovation? 

It definitely impacted my creative approach to problem solving. When solving problems at work, you go through many ideas. The level of creativity expressed at Burning Man was simply exceptional [and that's over and above my experience of working in an advertising agency]. I believe many of the innovative projects I've delivered in the last few years are inspired by what I saw and heard on the 'playa'

The concept of gifting, without expecting anything in return really inspired me. When I was at GSK, I spent lunchtimes working on organising events to bring different people from the company together to network and exchange ideas. It wasn't part of my job description, and it wouldn't lead to a bigger bonus or increase in pay. Some colleagues asked me, Why are you doing this? I also founded Health 2.0 London based upon the principle of gifting. I do my best to curate each event like a mini TED conference, and my time was not paid, and there was no charge for attendance. Again, people kept asking me, What do you get out of this? You could be using your time on paid projects. 

The other principle I experienced was participation.  Taken from the website,

"We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play."

The view of the street from our camp

The view of the street from our camp

So, whether I'm inviting people to a Health 2.0 London event, or working with one of my clients, I do my best to include people in the work I'm looking to do, and despite wearing different 'hats' we all have a contribution to make. I remember writing an email at GSK to one of the senior leaders in R&D suggesting he fine tune his future messages when delivering global webcasts to employees. To ask everyone to participate in the journey of making a medicine, from the janitors to the most senior leaders.

In the emerging area of Digital Health, I believe we need everyone to participate in innovation, not just startups, but healthcare professionals, government, corporations and academia too! 

It's also strengthened my links with that hotbed of innovation, Silicon Valley, as many of the 'burners' I have come to know work out there. I consider myself extremely privileged to have been able to participate in Burning Man, and the personal and professional growth as a result.

Critics of Burning Man argue that despite it's counterculture origins, it's become an elitist and pretentious event, attended mostly by wealthy corporate folks from California and Oregon. There is also the fact that you don't see that many people of colour there. The experience can be so bizarre, your mind has such a problem adjusting after the event concludes, that you have to 'decompress'. It's definitely not everyone's cup of tea. 

Even if you choose that Burning Man isn't for you, I just have one thing to say to you, "You're awesome, dude!".

Cycling was the best way of getting around the community

Cycling was the best way of getting around the community

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Silicon Valley comes to Oxford 2013

I've attended Silicon Valley comes to the UK (SVC2UK) at the University of Cambridge for the last 3 years, which led to me quitting my job. The chance to attend, Silicon Valley comes to Oxford (SVCO) came up, and I registered, curious to see how it would compare. I knew the university was old, but I didn't realise exactly how old, until I asked Siri.

As you remember from my post a few weeks ago, my first impressions of SVC2UK in 2013 were not great, as no public wifi in the venue. So, full marks to University of Oxford for having free public wifi available in the venue, from the moment I entered the venue.

Also, I received a survey from SVCO asking for feedback, 2 days after the event. Contrast this with SVC2UK, which sent me a survey by email, 17 days after the event. It does make me wonder.

The day I registered for involved 20:20 sessions featuring leaders from California, along with the Oxford Union debate in the evening. Tracks for the day's sessions were Venture Capital, Tech Entrepreneurship, Technology Executives, Health Care & Tech, and Sales & Marketing in Tech. The primary interest for me was the Health Care sessions.

First up was Dr David Edwards, who talked about redesigning food & how it will impact human health over the next 2 decades. One venture he has founded is Aerolife, which currently makes air based smart nutrition products. He was giving out samples after his talk. I took the breathable energy, excited to try it out. I tried it out today. Loved the energy boost and mode of delivery, but it left a horrible taste in my mouth. I was compelled to then drink a cup of coffee to get rid of the taste!

Next was Gary Lauer, CEO of eHealth who talked about the consumer centric approach in healthcare.

I spend so much time with medical professionals, investors, techies & patients, that hearing Stacey's Chang talk was very refreshing. Director of the IDEO Healthcare Practice, his talk was about 'Returning Humanity to Healthcare'. It wasn't just me who appreciated his unique perspective, you could see by the tweets and reactions of people around the room. One of the best talks I've heard in 2013.

For the last session, I decided to hear Michael Fertik, CEO of Reputation.com, talk about the future of Big Data, Privacy & the Individual. I didn't necessarily learn anything new, but it was the manner in which he explained his thoughts which was well received. Do we want to be a data serf or a data landlord?

Now, we had the chance after each of the 20:20 sessions to ask questions, plenty of time was allotted, and it was fairly informal. All of the speakers were great at taking questions, apart from one, who behaved arrogantly, Michael Fertik. People who had just heard him speak, asked him questions, and he interrupted, in a sarcastic tone, each person who was asking him a question. We had quietly listened to his talk, and yet he couldn't show the same respect when audience asked him questions? Maybe he was trying to be humourous, but he came across as a complete idiot. 

Should we rest our hopes on technology?

In the evening was the Oxford Union debate. So exciting, given that it's been going for 189 years, and is considered the world's most prestigious debating society. 

Panoramic view of Oxford Union's debating chamber

Panoramic view of Oxford Union's debating chamber

Dr Catherine Mohr

Dr Catherine Mohr

The debate was centered around one thing, "This house believes that the technology revolution will solve the global health care crisis". I really enjoyed it, as did the 8 leaders from Silicon Valley who participated. What's fascinating is that Dr Catherine Mohr, Director of Medical Research at Intuitive Surgical was the ONLY woman who was part of the debate, and everyone thought she was brilliant too, judging by the applause. Oh the final result, the opposition won the debate. I was one of those who voted for the opposition. I don't believe technology can solve ALL of the problems in Global Health. Certain problems can only be solved by using the ultimate technology, our brains! I managed to record the opening minutes of the debate being introduced, video is below (and is quite fun to watch).  

The beginning of the debate, opening remarks by Joe Dinucci

Mindset & Culture

I really appreciate events like SVCO & SVC2UK, as I'm sure there is much preparation involved. Both are now firmly on my calendar for 2014. However, these events are just one element of the change that is needed in the UK. Yes, we have brilliant minds in the UK, and yet why is that many of those brilliant minds only flourish once they relocate to Silicon Valley. In my numerous visits to the Valley, I observe how the 'energy', the 'culture', the 'mindset' is so unique and inspires me each time I'm over there. Reading this great article this week on Silicon Valley, two sentences stand out,

  1. Silicon Valley is as much about mindset as it is about the location.
  2. This mindset is something rarely studied as it is woven through the fabric of the Valley and difficult to see.

I don't have the answers about how we cultivate that 'mindset' in this country. If you do, I'd love to know what your thoughts are. 

Perhaps, it's too late for those of us who've been through the established education system here? Maybe it's the 5 year old children of today who we need to influence and inspire, as both their hearts & minds are relatively more open than the MBA graduates of today? Perhaps in 2014, we can have "Silicon Valley comes to your primary school"?

In healthcare, the reality is often far different than events such as SVCO. Starting a business and creating new technology is the easy part, finding people willing to pay for your innovation is much harder, and sometimes impossible. Pascal Lardier, who runs the international conferences for Health 2.0, recently wrote about how the NHS isn't doing as well as it wanted to, when it comes to working with UK health tech startups.

We were told at the start of Sunday by Professor Andrew Hamilton, Vice-Chancellor, University of Oxford that the university wanted to be more like Stanford & Berkeley. That we shouldn't be fooled by the old architecture, we are a very modern university. However, having visited both Stanford & Berkeley, I was struck by how many people in suits were in attendance at the event in Oxford. When I attend events in the Valley, I'm struck by how few people are wearing suits. This is what I mean about 'mindset' and 'culture'. 

What were people saying on Twitter?

Not that much actually. Despite the fact that the printed program had the Twitter handle of each speaker listed (well, actually, out of 51 speakers, 24 had a Twitter handle). Kudos to the organisers, most events I attend do not list this in the program, and you waste time searching to see if the speaker you're hearing is on Twitter. 

Given the multi-billion dollar IPO of Twitter this year, I was surprised by the low number of people at an event with 'Silicon Valley' in the title engaging in the Twitter conversation. Apparently, 600 attendees the day I attended. Being a data person, I turned to Tweet Binder to analyse the hashtag of the event, #SVCO to gather evidence You can see excerpts from the report below. Naturally, if someone tweeted during the event, without the hashtag, it's not included in the report. So, 247 original tweets from 179 contributors. Interesting stuff! 

Twitter hashtag analysis #SVCO

Twitter hashtag analysis #SVCO

So who exactly was tweeting? If you've read my previous posts, you'll know that I'm very active on Twitter. The definition of 'Most Active' in this report is the contributor who sent the highest number of tweets (RTs included). 'Most popular' is simply the number of followers for each contributor, it's the 'highest impact', defined as number of tweets or RTs multiplied by number of followers for that contributor. 

Twitter hashtag analysis #SVCO

Twitter hashtag analysis #SVCO


Overall, an enjoyable, inspiring and educational day, and the organisers must be applauded for running this for the 13th year. I got a dose of Silicon Valley without having to sit on a plane for 11 hours!

In fact, I met people at the event that may be interested in working with me in 2014 in the area of Digital Health. A totally unexpected bonus. It reminds me that despite our fixation with being online in the digital economy, we can learn so much by connecting with people in real life at events such as SVCO.

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Ontario: The global hub for 'science driven' wearable tech startups?

Last week I was part of a panel discussion in Toronto, Canada. Hosted by MaRS and Ontario Genomics Institute (OGI), the topic was Big Data and Personalized Medicine. The event was part of the MaRS Global Leadership series. MaRS is a place where science, technology and social entrepreneurs come together and get the help they need, where new conversations take place, and innovation is actively nurtured. OGI is a private, not-for-profit corporation focused on using world-class research to create strategic genomics resources and accelerate Ontario’s development of a globally-competitive life sciences sector.

Rhonda Tannenbaum, VP of Business Development at Ontario Genomics Institute introducing the event

Rhonda Tannenbaum, VP of Business Development at Ontario Genomics Institute introducing the event

The other two panellists had amazing backgrounds. Phyllis Frosst, Senior Policy Fellow at the Personalised Medicine Coalition, and Fiona Stewart, practices at Belfast City Hospital, specialises in Clinical Genetics & also is part of the UK Genetic testing network. I learnt so much from spending time with them (as did the audience).


I shared my thoughts on trends in Digital Health and what it means from a data perspective. Such as the forthcoming explosion of data generated by our bodies 24/7 but now being captured by sensors, apps and genetic tests. How will it best be shared? How will it be governed? Do we need to rethink data privacy & security in the 21st century? How can patients be given real-time dynamic consent when it comes to toggling levels of access to their health data? How can these data support personalised medicine or will they just be meaningless datasets in 5 years time? One of the last questions from the audience was whether these trends in technology & data will lead to Canada's population being served in the future by doctors based in other countries. Healthcare without borders may well be one of the options employed in order to cope with rising costs.

Participating in the event reminded of the need for more 'science driven' health tech startups. In the world of health & social care, which is used to evidence based medicine, I believe those startups which are based upon good science, have the greatest chances of long term success & prosperity.

Science driven wearable tech startups

Whilst I was in Toronto, I decided to grab some time with a number of wearable tech startups that are based out there. After meeting them, I was truly impressed by their passion, 'science driven' approach, and their humility. None of the arrogance and false superiority displayed by many startups I've met in other places.

I met with Mike Lovas from PUSH. They are working on the first fitness tracking device that measures strength. When performing your bench press, squats, or deadlift in the gym, the device promises to capture sets, reps, force output, power, and velocity. The goal of PUSH is not to replace the human trainer/coach, but to support the trainer. I started imagining the possibilities of combining PUSH with other wearable tech. For example, what if during your squats, PUSH records your strength, your Lumoback would measure your posture, and smart socks from Sensoria would measure if your feet are moving in the wrong direction. Combine all of the resulting data, and provide real-time feedback via earphones to the person performing the exercise. Not only does this feedback loop optimise your workout, but you could prevent injuries due to poor technique. Wouldn't that be awesome? You can hear more about PUSH in the video.

Mike Lovas, Chief Design Officer, co-founder at PUSH 

Next I met with, Ashley Beattie from Kiwi Wearable Technologies. They are currently working on the kiwi move, which is is an internet-enabled motion sensing device and can be used to track your activity, automate your home and even secure your valuables. We didn't have much time for our meeting, so didn't get a chance to view their device. However, I was enthralled by the conversation with Ashley and the vision for Kiwi. I remember that he told me, "the dominant wearable tech company of the future wll be a platform company, having multiple apps, with one device, creating a 'pivot chart' for your sensor data." Definitely a company to keep an eye on. You can hear more about Kiwi in the video.

Ashley Beattie, co-founder, Kiwi Wearables 

Running around Toronto, I popped into the offices of Interaxon, and caught up with Trevor Coleman. In addition to being the person that persuaded me to start using Twitter back in early 2012, when I met him at Wisdom 2.0 in Silicon Valley, he's working on MUSE, their new brain sensing headband. I admire how they want people to use the technology to actually connect to themselves. Trevor possesses unique insights into the merging of wisdom & technology. I'm excited to see reactions from consumers once the product starts shipping in 2014. Hear more from Trevor in the video.

Trevor Coleman, Chief Product Officer, Interaxon

Finally, I got a chance to meet the super busy Saul Colt, principal at Kinetic Cafe and also the head of the new Fresh Startups program. Saul is a pioneer who is challenging the status quo when it comes to our beliefs regarding accelerating and incubating health tech startups. Their differentiator is their partnership with Freshii, a health food restaurant chain looking to shake up fast food while keeping meals healthy. You must watch the short video of Saul explaining why he started the Fresh Startups program. 

Saul Colt, Founder, Fresh Startups 

I meet a lot of startups, in different parts of the world, but in Toronto, something seemed to make them different. Their commitment to creating 'science driven' wearable technology in the world of fitness & health. I see so many startups in this area developing a product simply because it's cool or sexy, but based on little or no science. What seems to give Toronto's wearable tech startups an edge over other parts of the world can be found by driving 115km away from Toronto, to the University of Waterloo. "Every Canadian in a successful startup seems to be from the University of Waterloo", remarked Mike Lovas.

According to Startup Genome’s Startup Ecosystem Report 2013, three Canadian cities rank among the top 20 most active startup scenes in the world. Toronto, Vancouver & Waterloo. I'm seriously impressed that Waterloo is ranked 16th, just behind Berlin. Why am I impressed? The population of Waterloo is just 124,600! I didn't get a chance to meet Airo Health, and Thalmic Labs, two more wearable tech startups, who are based near Waterloo.

UK Independence Party advert

UK Independence Party advert

From a cultural perspective, whilst the UK Independence Party is trying to change influence policy to limit immigration, Toronto in particular seems to be welcoming immigrants with open arms. Nearly 50% of Toronto's population is foreign born. That's critical when it comes to attracting global talent.

Poster in downtown Toronto welcoming new immigrants

Poster in downtown Toronto welcoming new immigrants

My experiences in Toronto have left me enlightened and inspired. My last thoughts as I headed back to London, were that if current trends continue, the province of Ontario (which includes Toronto and Waterloo) may well become the global hub for 'science driven' wearable tech startups.

[Disclosure: I have no commercial ties with the companies mentioned in this post]

How do we make Aging as sexy as Global Warming?

The title of this blog post is one of the questions that I posed to the panel & the audience at the pre-conference workshop I ran for Health 2.0 in London on Sunday 17th November. [Note: credit to Victor Wang for coming up with the quote on Saturday]

Yesterday, Health 2.0, myself, and the participants of this workshop created history.

A bold claim, but look at the variety of Health IT, mHealth & Digital Health conferences around the world. How many run workshops which discuss old age and dying? Kudos to Matthew Holt and Pascal Lardier for being pioneers in making this happen. What I love about being involved with the Health 2.0 conferences is the genuine desire of the team to challenge the status quo. When the idea for this workshop was first discussed, the immediate response from Health 2.0 was not the all too common, "No, it's going to be too difficult", but "Yes, this is risky and uncharted territory, but let's give it a go". 

Where is everyone else?

The workshop was not perfect. We had no patients in the room, apart from Sarah Reed who delivered wonderful insights on behalf of older patients. We didn't have policy makers, the NHS, investors, the third sector, or designers in the room. We did use various channels to publicise the workshop, and I reached out to a number of entities that would have benefited from attending, but either no response or they were simply too busy. Perhaps they felt talking about old age & dying and how technology can help was a bit too radical for a Sunday afternoon? 

I started the workshop setting the scene in terms of Aging populations and the challenges & opportunities. You can see the slides below. The trends of Aging populations is a gradual one, and perhaps that's why it's often not number 1 priority on the minds of decision makers & politicians, who are often faced with short term pressures. Furthermore, many of us use words such as 'burden, 'cost' and 'problem' when describing citizens aged 65 years and up.

I say, older people must be embraced by society. Let's celebrate their existence. They offer life experience, wisdom & talents that could help so many of us, especially young people. In modern times, many of us, not just older people live lonely and isolated lives. A recent survey of GPs in the UK found that 1 in every 10 patients they see every day are coming to see the doctor because they are lonely. Naturally, that places pressure on already stretched services, but more importantly, what does that say about our society? 

Whilst technology can't necessarily reinvent our social fabric, some of the innovations shown at the workshop could be employed to allow older people to stay connected with others in society. 

A very intense and well received 3.5 hours with patient insights, 13 demos of innovative technologies and a 5 member panel discussion featuring Tobias StoneJanet JadavjiClive Bowman, Bart ColletBrenda Reginatto.

The demos were split into 3 sections;

Disease prevention & Disease Management

uMotif, Memory Lane Games, Advanced Balance Systems, SmartCitizen

Aging in Place

Fresh Idea Factory, Vivago, Intelesant, Zilta

Tools for Caregivers & Families

GeriJoy, Yecco, SpeakSet, Mindings, Breezie

Sarah Reed sharing insights from a patient's perspective

Sarah Reed sharing insights from a patient's perspective

Key learnings

  1. You can be successful at a global level without being based in Silicon Valley
  2. The importance of 'science driven' health startups
  3. Many startups in this arena are founded by people who have cared for an elderly relative
  4. We can't just treat older people as one big cohort and assume they all have the same needs
  5. Underlying technology doesn't need to be complex to be effective
  6. How can innovators & investors make money after developing these technologies?
  7. Who is actually going to pay for the innovation?

One or more of the startups who demonstrated their products at the workshop may well be a global name in future years. I left the workshop feeling hopeful, inspired and positive. I acknowledge that data & technology alone won't solve every issue faced by older people, health & social care professionals and their families & caregivers but it definitely has a role to play.

What next?

Even if you weren't at the workshop, and won't be attending Health 2.0 Europe, I encourage you, wherever in the world you are based, to discuss and debate, old age and dying. These conversations will be uncomfortable and frightening, and at times rather unpleasant, but we won't be able to move forward unless we act with courage. Each of you can (and hopefully will) play a part in making Aging as sexy as Global Warming.

[Disclosure: I have no commercial ties to any of the companies mentioned above, apart from Health 2.0, which I provide consulting services to from time to time]

Shit happens, deal with it.

I'm not a doctor. I'm not a nurse. I'm not a politician. I'm simply a curious individual. When I attend healthcare innovation events, I admit I'm not the smartest person in the room but I am one of the most curious at these events. I'm compelled to mention that the more I learn about the NHS, the more admiration and respect I have for the hard working men and women on the frontline, often working with limited resources and under extreme pressure. 

Paper, X-Rays and a nurse's first day at work

I'm curious about why I had to carry a piece of paper to the X-Ray department when I visited Accident & Emergency (ER room) in a London hospital last year. The triage nurse who saw me, decided an X-Ray of my elbow was required. A piece of paper was printed out, handed to me, and I walked down the hall, handed it into X-Ray, got my X-Ray done, and then walked back down the hall. I then had to knock on the door of the Minor Injuries Unit and 'verbally' let them know my X-Ray had been completed, and then wait outside to be called in. 

So, I patiently waited for hours after my X-Ray had been completed. The same triage nurse walked past and asked me, 'Have you still not been seen?'. Off she went to check, and then within a few minutes, I was called into the Minor Injuries Unit. When I asked the guy looking after me, why it took so long, I was taken aback by the response. My notes were in one tray, and were supposed to be moved to another tray by a nurse once I had 'verbally' let them know my X-Ray was done. The nurse hadn't moved my notes to the other tray. It was her first day, and she wasn't fully up to speed with procedures, I was told. A shrug of his shoulders, and a look on his face that said, 'Shit happens, deal with it'. Maybe we should have 'Open Data' that lets us know on what dates, there are new starters in the hospital? Someone can develop an app using that data that informs us exactly when to avoid the hospital. 

I understand that the NHS is looking to go paperless by 2018, that's still 5 years away. I'm curious why as a consumer, it was so easy for me to have a paperless office, and it was simply a case of buying a Doxie Go, an Eyefi SD card, a LiveScribe Sky pen, and an Evernote account. All bought on Amazon.  

Data driven decisions - Easy for supermarkets, difficult for hospitals?

I'm curious why the NHS isn't using predictive analytics to understand exactly who is most at risk of diabetes, heart disease etc and sending out a personalised series of messages? I worked at DunnHumby (who came up with the idea of the Tesco Clubcard to collect data on shopping habits) in 1997, looking after the data for 8 million customers of Tesco. Even all those years ago, they were able to profile the customers, segment them, and personalise offers for each customer segment. The level of insights from the data means that Tesco now can predict a couple divorcing, 6 months before it actually takes place. Target in the USA can predict when one of their customers is pregnant, all based upon their data. Maybe the NHS could do the same to reduce the rate of teenage pregnancies? [Note: UK has highest teenage pregnancy rates in Western Europe] Let's foster a culture in the NHS of using data to drive decision making and to learn how to optimise the communication strategy to target those people most at risk. 

NHS engaging with startups

Last week I was kindly invited to give a 5 minute talk at the NHS Entrepreneur's Day in London, hosted by Tim Kelsey and Beverly Bryant. We heard from Tim, Beverly and others on their plans for making it easier to do business with the NHS. My talk was about the Health 2.0 London Chapter I started last year, as well as the Health 2.0 Europe conference taking place in London, and what both the Chapter and the Conference can offer to entrepreneurs and SMEs wishing to innovate in the NHS. [Note: If you would like to register for the Health 2.0 Europe conference, you can get a 15% discount off the advertised prices by using promo code of MJ2013. The Chapter is free to join though, and the monthly events are free to attend]

I was seriously impressed that the NHS wishes to make it easier for innovators to engage with them. I'm glad they are building bridges with the innovators. Let's hope those bridges allow two way traffic, have multiple lanes and no speed limits. The event also educated me on the challenges, Tim, Beverly and others face everyday on the inside as they do their best to bring the NHS into the 21st century. I can empathise, having worked in a team looking at transforming Leadership Culture for 11,000 scientists around the world, when I was at GSK. Change within large, complex organisations that are heavily regulated does take time, at least 3 years, and sometimes an entire generation. However, one thing we don't have right now is the luxury of time. Every day that we sit and discuss how to spread innovation within the NHS, patients continue to be at risk. 

Ideas for engaging with startups

Moving forwards, I have 3 ideas for how the NHS could build upon their existing plans to engage with entrepreneurs and startups. 

  • Reverse hackathons! I'm not impressed by the majority of hackathons I have attended in healthcare. I recently came across a company in the States, called Prebacked. They ran an interesting event in May 2013, where the a US health insurer shared their problems and how much they were willing to pay for technology that solved those problems, and then the hackathon began. 

  • Getting more innovators from the private sector inside the NHS. I've been reading about the Presidential Innovation Fellows program that they have started in America. Perhaps NHS Innovation Fellows? I know some very talented people in the UK who could make a real impact on the inside. 

The vision for the NHS in 2078 - where is it? 

The NHS had just celebrated it's 65th birthday. I'm curious how the NHS will look in 65 years time, in the year 2078. I would be 105 years old at that point, if still alive. Whilst I appreciate that there are short term challenges to meet (and lots of initiatives underway already), we also need courageous leaders with a strong vision, who acknowledge that the decisions we make today will have an impact on generations to come. The proposal to create a National Health Service by Aneurin Bevan back in the 1940s was 'radical' at the time, and initially opposed by the BMA. I'm curious what type of health service we want our children and grand children to inherit.

What happens after 2018? 

I believe we are too focused on short term goals in healthcare, be it in the UK or abroad. Be it a politician thinking in 4 year electoral terms, a CEO thinking of their 3 year stock options, or a VC backed startup with their 3 year exit strategy. Not all of our problems in healthcare can be solved in just 3-5 years, and Digital Health, despite it's potential, will alone not be the panacea. Furthermore, 'Innovation' shouldn't just be this year's favourite buzzword to add spice to white papers. Solving problems in healthcare shouldn't just be the remit of senior leaders and entrepreneurs, everyone should be able to participate. Only by putting our differences aside, having candid and authentic conversations with a focus on genuine collaboration, can we even stand a chance of meeting the immense challenges that lie ahead of us.

If this doesn't happen, I'm curious if we will have to get used to a culture of 'Shit happens, deal with it'. 

[Disclosure: I run Health 2.0 London as a volunteer, but I do have commercial ties to Health 2.0 in San Francisco. Apart from this, I have no commercial ties with any of the products/services mentioned in this post]