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A lot of COVID-specific innovation is coming across the desk of Rob Stephen, a patent attorney at CMS and co-chair of the group’s UK life sciences and health care sector. “We’re still trying to crack this nut,” he said, adding “as a disease, COVID won’t go away.”

For a brief moment in late 2020, that was an enticing prospect, but two serious variants later, the disruptive effects of the pandemic now seem likely to continue deep into 2022 at least, on the strength of the swift rise in Omicron cases seen in December 2021.

However, in terms of health care innovation, it has been an interesting – not to say exciting – time. Technologies that have become validated as a result of COVID-19, such as RNA technologies, are being seen to be applicable to other diseases, like flu, said Stephen.

RNA Technologies

He observed that there is a “flat out” race going on to generate flu vaccines that are of the same style as the COVID messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines. The RNA technology applies to other diseases like cancer, and there are further technologies that will springboard off that. RNA technology companies will ensure they leverage the opportunities. “That technology is going to explode,” Stephen predicted.

Companies are seeing that it is quicker to adopt this technology approach than to pursue the traditional route. This technology shift is expected to change where people’s focus lies, said Stephen, and if they can do it in the new way, they will.

Stephen’s colleague, Jane Hollywood, a fellow patent attorney and head of CMS’s equIP life sciences program for early-stage tech innovators, echoed Stephen, confirming that COVID-related diagnostic assays are continuing to come her way. Additionally, there is a lot of work coming in relating to electroceutical innovations.

COVID has called for adjustment across the board, but the thing it has not made a difference to is the sheer pace of work, Hollywood asserted. Pandemic or not, on a day-to-day basis, the health care and life sciences patent attorneys are busy all of the time.

COVID Legacy Effects On Innovation

The innovation categories currently being channelled through CMS’s equIP or mainstream program include artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics. “It is unusual to be working for a company now that doesn’t have some element of AI,” Stephen commented.

Another legacy effect of the pandemic has been an explosion in online pharmacies. The activity has ballooned, and a lot of companies are getting involved in this area.

Elsewhere, local point of care testing has become more defined, as has local manufacturing of vaccines. The latter could be a useful development in helping to head off potential health care product supply crises in the future.

The question in everyone’s mind is: “What happens for the next one?” And when it arrives, will there be plant available to enable countries to respond to health care threats by making target vaccines locally? Stephen asked. This drive for such “local approaches” is another legacy of COVID, while, for governments, dilemmas over the value of on-, off- or near-shoring of manufacturing will not go away.

equIP Support For Smaller Innovators

Hollywood noted a lot of interest in closed circuit therapeutic systems. For instance, the equIP program is working with Amber Therapeutics, a company that has developed a platform to generate novel, closed-loop bioelectrical therapies. Adding closed-loop intelligence might radically improve clinical efficacy and outcomes. Amber’s initial focus is the peripheral and central nervous system.

The equIP program continues to see a healthy churn of companies, with over 20 life sciences companies featuring among the 170 or so on CMS’s books at present. The trend has slowed slightly over the past year, said Hollywood, for several reasons including COVID’s impact on the ability of companies to raise funds.

“Under the program, companies come to us for a huge amount of data protection, regulatory and corporate advice  ̶ it’s unusual to have that all in one place.” – Jane Hollywood

Among the equIP group, besides Amber, is a company called BrightCure, which is developing microbiome products. “A benefit of the program is that they are able to come to us for a huge amount of legal advice – on data protection, as well as regulatory and corporate advice,” said Hollywood. “It’s unusual to have that all in one place, enabling companies big and small to be shown the legal challenges and where the markets are,” she added.

CMS’s position is that start-ups seeking its investment and advice need to already have third party funding in place (not from friends and family) to be taken on.

HealthTech companies should have generated some revenues to be eligible, said Hollywood, but that is not a realistic expectation for all life sciences companies. But once a company qualifies, it gets CMS’s team of PhD scientists’ input on how to differentiate and add value to a product offering; in short, how to make it more successful. 

equIP is a special vehicle that enables CMS, as a global law firm, to work with smaller companies. Under the program, smaller companies can obtain affordable access to CMS’s services. On the flip side, CMS obtains a familiarity with the technology it is supporting, and with the company itself. Theoretically, it can establish long-lasting relationships with such companies as they grow.

Alongside the equIP program, CMS contributes to the development of larger companies based on its  detailed knowledge of the top global companies’ scientific areas of expertise. The top 10 pharma companies use CMS to field focused and informed questions based on their particular and varied needs.

“The CMS team needs to have broad knowledge around issues, as well as to be able to drill deep,” said Stephen, describing CMS’s value proposition to clients.

The team showed this to useful effect, for instance, when questions over the regulation of cannabis were becoming prominent for health care companies. More recently, Stephen has noted an uptick in demand for advice and guidance on the value of remote sensing for diagnostic purposes, and behaviour monitoring  ̶  examples of technologies that are rapidly being refined. Many technologies were validated and accelerated during the pandemic, he noted.

Rise Of Sustainability Issues

Sustainability and environmental, societal and government (ESG) themes generally have become an agenda point for every major health care concern operating in the global arena.

“Sustainability needs are now an integral part of everything.” – Rob Stephen

Companies must evaluate how their environmental activities and societal contributions feed into their public profile on a sustainable basis. This is evidently a pressing issue for the current makers of COVID-19 vaccines, but it also spans across the entire spectrum of health care and medtech innovators.

“Sustainability needs are now an integral part of everything,” said Stephen, noting a perceptible rise in innovation in sustainable technologies. But on the other hand, there are still a lot of innovators who are not factoring in sustainability at all.

During COVID, the priority was to “get products out” and simply solve the problem at hand. “But over the longer term, sustainability will become ‘must have,’ not just nice to have, in terms of new product development,” Stephen stressed.

For younger entrepreneurs especially, this issue is part of their DNA. The time given over to discussing this issue has already “gone through the roof,” and next year it will become much more prominent still, Hollywood added.

The pandemic also pushed value-based health care (VBHC) and procurement down the priority list somewhat, but it has not gone away and cannot be ignored. Nevertheless, if a company has generated a technology that has an improved VBHC utility, it should still promote that benefit as hard as it can, Stephen advised.

A useful spin-off from the pandemic is that sciences and health care have – or will – come out of the COVID episode with more of a rosy glow around them, publicly, and in terms of “investability,” Stephen observed. “Science got us out of the mess, and that has given a positive spin for the industry.” At present, companies are not over-worried about not getting investment, he said. “There seems to be money in the market.”

Taken together, it set a positive mood for the future, said Hollywood.

Stephen added that medtech regulation has become more complex, to take the EU and the UK as just two examples where new laws require heightened compliance. That will place burdens on companies.

Aside from that, “it’s an exciting time to be in the thick of the action,” said Stephen. “There’s a huge amount going on in health care that’s really encouraging.” 

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