New HIHI cross-border report finds common barriers for smaller vendors in healthcare and urges an all-island shift to innovation procurement, enabling SMEs and Start-ups to thrive in domestic health tech markets

| Posted on: 25 March, 2024

Launched today, the ‘Buying All-Island in Healthcare – North and South’ report publishes the findings and recommendations framework of the All-Island Medtech SMEs (AIMS) initiative, delivered through a 12-month cross-border partnership of HSE and Enterprise Ireland partnership Health Innovation Hub Ireland (HIHI) and Health Innovation Research Alliance Northern Ireland (HIRANI), supported by InterTradeIreland’s Synergy programme. This all-island collaborative initiative with SMEs and healthcare stakeholders – health sector, health industry, policy, state agency, academia and procurement – identified barriers and experienced by smaller vendors in Irish healthcare and proposed solutions.

38 stakeholder groups from health, industry, policy, state agency, academia and procurement, identified common challenges to SMEs and start-ups within the Irish (North and South) health market.  New and smaller suppliers below certain revenue thresholds are not equally positioned to compete with established vendors for healthcare tenders, unfairly affected by scale and liquidity requirements. Outdated assessments for software products, lack of innovation procurement and funding for its mechanisms, limited use of dynamic purchasing systems and purchasing standards that vary widely across secondary care sites in ROI are also perceived to be prohibitive.

AIMS stakeholder workshops; expert advisory group sessions and European benchmarking informed the proposed solutions contained in the ‘AIMS Framework of recommendations for Innovation Procurement’. The framework focuses on four key areas to deliver system-wide impact that will facilitate the procurement of innovative products across the healthcare sector on the island of Ireland from all vendors, regardless of size –

  1. Budget and Mechanisms – create a protected healthcare budget for the procurement of innovation, implement EU approved mechanism

To boost innovation procurement allocate a portion of the public budget, replicating successful European exemplars. Public Procurement of Innovative solutions (PPI) is one mechanism. The public sector uses its purchasing power to act as early adopter of innovative solutions that are not yet available on large-scale commercial basis. PPI can target specific healthcare challenges by seeking innovative solutions, and through a testing phase, reduce risks commonly associated with smaller vendors

  1. Review and revise procurement thresholds — hardware vs software

Tender requirements often demand high turnovers, a relic of old hardware focussed companies. This excludes smaller, innovative firms. Unlike hardware, software does not rely on costly supply chains; its main costs are licenses and setup. Software procurement should prioritise features, capabilities, and fit with needs over financial size.

  1. Increase use of Dynamic Purchasing Systems (DPS) in healthcare procurement

A DPS is a digital tool allowing qualified suppliers to join anytime to compete for contracts. In contrast to tender frameworks, which usually last four years. DPS increases small businesses access to public contracts, simplifying the process by cutting out repetitive bids.

  1. Co-develop and publish education tool for SMEs navigating HSC and HSE

Developing an educational tool with HSE procurement for SMEs and start-ups will benefit small entities understanding of a multi-faceted complex process. The online tool will be co-developed, user-friendly, accessible and regularly updated to reflect any changes in regulations or best practice

Currently, there are no Irish innovation procurement policy frameworks driving public buyer engagement with smaller vendors. This is in stark contrast to common European practice. Austria, Belgium, Finland, and the Netherlands have specific action plans for innovation procurement. Denmark, Germany, Estonia, Greece, France and Sweden include specific objectives on innovation procurement in wider national strategies.

Dr Tanya Mulcahy, National Director Health Innovation Hub Ireland said:

 “While the development of innovative healthcare products by Irish and Northern Irish-based companies is something we excel at, the application and procurement of those innovations in Irish healthcare has not been realised. This report identifies some of the barriers and measures that could be implemented immediately with significant effect. The ‘Programme for Government – Our Shared Future’ identified the role public procurement can play as an instrument to support innovation and allow greater access for SMEs to public procurement. The six new Regional Health Authorities also present an opportunity to assess these recommendations and consider suitability per region.”

“The HSE is making changes to its procurement processes and has specifically identified working with HIHI in its Corporate Plan 2022-2024. The recommendations of the ‘Buying Irish in Healthcare – North and South’ report recommend priorities on which we can collaborate.

 Eimear Galvin, HIHI Regional Manager and  AIMS project lead said:

 “We know that for Irish start-ups and SMEs the process of engagement from ‘procurement’ through to ‘use’ can take on average 12-24 months and the AIMS workshops corroborated this. The effects of this lag are multi-layered: healthcare sites endure a wait before the product required meets the identified need; revenue streams for SMEs and start-ups are negatively affected; restricted revenue streams limit ability to create employment; may lead to discontinuation – affecting GDP. Our recommendations are designed to counter this across the board – benefitting healthcare systems, indigenous health tech vendors and economic growth”

Prof Joann Rhodes, CEO HIRANI said:

“Innovation is defined as the process of bringing about new products, services, or solutions for challenges that will have a significant positive impact and value. Challenges within the health systems for both vendors and suppliers are largely mirrored across North and South. This report examined the benefits of working pro-actively together to guide suppliers to develop their products ‘in sync’ with the key priorities of both health systems on the island of Ireland and to create a framework to support procurement.

“The Northern Ireland Executive has already recognised the benefits of local public procurement in 2022, and as they develop their new Programme for Government, this report will be a valuable resource to influence decision makers to better support the benefits of local procurement in Health. Despite the differing policy landscapes, North and South, a joint delivery of recommendations such as an all-island Dynamic Purchasing system to provide a route for local innovation to enhance health and prosperity across the island of Ireland would be highly advantageous”.