As technology advances in all areas of human existence, healthcare is certainly no exception. Arguably, health tech is the most crucial sector of tech as it holds the power to improve and potentially save lives. Tech has played an integral role in the development of healthcare from the get-go, and it continues to influence every aspect of the sector through services from protecting our NHS from cyberattacks to making prosthetic limbs accessible to more people through cheaper materials processes.

Healthcare and tech are intrinsically linked, and where there is potential for life-changing innovation, the South West’s tech sector finds itself at the forefront. There is a wealth of health tech experts, movers, and shakers working tirelessly to build the next solution to a historic problem in our region, but first, how exactly can we define ‘health tech’?

Unpicking the meaning of health tech 

The World Health Organisation defines health technology as the “application of organised knowledge and skills in the form of devices, medicines, vaccines, procedures, and systems developed to solve a health problem and improve quality of life.” So essentially, anything that meets the intersection of healthcare and technological or digital innovation. Whilst this holistic view provides a succinct starting point, it naturally omits the inspiring intricacies of health tech. And there is room for debate on what is or isn’t technically health tech. 

To dig deeper, we caught up with some of the experts, starting with the West of England Academic Health Science Network (AHSN). The West of England AHSN is a body that supports the spread and adoption of health innovation in a truly inclusive and collaborative way to ensure the impact of its work has the broadest and most sustained benefit. Rosie Brown (pictured right), Senior Project Manager at the West of England AHSN, explains more about the group, “We’re one of 15 AHSNs across England – all commissioned by NHS England and the government’s Office for Life Sciences to speed up the adoption and spread of innovation to transform lives.

“It is by investing time into nurturing and growing our health innovation ecosystem in the West that we are able to provide this unique brokering service, connecting innovators with health and care providers, in a way which would be impossible to achieve without our support.”

Rosie’s definition of health tech encompasses just how complex and wide reaching the sector is. She corroborates WHO’s conclusion that the ultimate purpose behind any health tech innovation is to improve the health and wellbeing of the popualtuon, crucially stating that it is about determining, “how services and care are delivered.”

She continues, “It’s transforming our approach to how we tackle healthcare challenges, ranging from prevention of disease, diagnosis and monitoring to treatment and self-management.

“There has been an exponential rise in recognition of the huge potential that health tech offers to transform health and care services, from supporting remote monitoring to improving the flow of information. Digital tools have the power to revolutionise the way health and care are delivered. This might be in the form of medical devices, new systems, algorithms or artificial intelligence (AI), for example.”

This potential for revolutionary processes is what gives health tech such a bustling atmosphere; entrepreneurs in the sector have a track record for completely changing someone’s life for the better. With such immense possibility and responsibility, the community of health tech innovators relies on one another.

The organisers of meetup group One Healthtech Bristol (OHT) recognise the importance of this support and therefore established OHT to nurture innovation. Fiona Dawson, Director of Mayden, outlines the significance of bringing the experts in a field into one room: “Sector-focused meetups, groups, and communities like One Healthtech provide high quality networking and events that can help initiate, incubate and grow health tech in the South West and beyond. Innovation often comes from a spark – an incidental meeting, a meeting of minds, a presentation that gives you an earworm that you just can’t let go of. We believe that by creating as many of these ‘accidental on purpose’ opportunities as possible, we can help create great innovations and, therefore, growth in health tech. As well as making some great friends and connections along the way!”

That said, Fiona tells us she believes the traditional definition that health tech is technology-enabled products or services that provide, support, manage or enable healthcare overlooks some crucial elements: “We think that this misses many of the wider population health and people-centred benefits that health tech provides. As well as bringing efficiencies, safety and quality improvements to healthcare settings, health tech provides the opportunity to bring the patient and clinician closer together, providing additional insights not otherwise available, with the potential to improve the delivery of care and change outcomes for patients for the better.”

This pertinent insight highlights that health tech is more than building state-of-the-art products; a key aspect is how the sector can enhance the experience of individuals – working towards solving a huge problem that is becoming increasingly present in our society today.

Exciting developments in the South West

As the South West has such a range of innovators working in the health tech sphere, it’s a really exciting time for the sector. The opportunity to collaborate on pioneering findings and research with a big circle of entrepreneurs and tech enablers has created a unique space to grow as a sector.

We caught up with Garry Pratt, Chief Commercial Officer at Earswitch, an R&D venture accelerating earphone sensor technology through biometrics, eye-tracking and hands-free control to hear more from a startup growing in the health tech space.

Earswitch is building some very exciting technology. As featured in our Health Tech companies to watch list, Garry explains more: “Our unique patent protected in-ear sensor technologies enable subconscious control and physiological monitoring. Our in-ear switch & biometrics sensor technology is empowering new ways to control and interact with other technologies and the environment and is at the forefront of Headphone 3.0 developments, revolutionary continuous medical monitoring and consumer biometrics.”

Most significantly, Earswitch could empower individuals with Motor Neurone Disease, those who are Locked-in after a stroke or have severe cerebral palsy, with the ability to communicate. The use expands beyond this into the consumerism market, making the startup multi-faceted and incredibly exciting.

Garry tells us the founder and inventor, Nick Gompertz, created Earswitch to help people with neurological disorders such as MND, communicate through the voluntary control of a muscle in their eardrums. “Nick was inspired by the amazing story of a several disabled young man called Jonathan Bryant, who had aged 13, written an entire book word by word through only the use of his eyes and the unwavering support and belief of his mother,” Garry explains.

” More importantly – some people just want to communicate. If you have Motor Neurone Disease, are Locked-in after a stroke, or have severe cerebral palsy “

The Silicon Gorge finalists have a big future ahead of them, and we can’t wait to see what they achieve. They’re not alone in their quest to break barriers of healthcare, as Garry tells us the best thing about being in health tech is, “the heady mix of being able to explore, bring together ideas, research and being around talented people that will directly help you, and can also be the launchpad for business success. We’ve been lucky that so many amazing people, academics, and investors have all seen the potential of Earswitch and have given us the mechanisms to explore them.”

Through their work supporting health tech startups, scaleups, and SMEs, Fiona and Rosie are consistently at the forefront of witnessing the next big innovation. Fiona tells us, for her, the most exciting developments we’re currently seeing are in areas where companies are using robotics, AI and leading user-centred design “to place health tech fully into the hands of those it serves.” She continues, “Whether it be Open Bionics, turning disabilities into superpowers, Elvie, taking women’s tech out of the dark ages, or Neuronostics, revolutionising diagnosis and prognosis of neurological conditions; companies in the South West are genuinely changing lives.”

Rosie explains that we’re seeing lots of exciting innovations designed to support primary care mental health services: “These innovations offer benefit to both patient and provider, through increased accessibility of services and a positive impact on workforce capacity.

“The remote monitoring tech that exploded during the Covid-19 pandemic is starting to give rise to an increased focus on effective self-management of long-term conditions and disease prevention. This could become really exciting in the future if such innovations manage to deliver effective behavioural change results.”

There are a plethora of technologies being developed and deployed in the South West to help with assisted living. From AutonoMe, which combines Educational Technology and one-to-one support to improve outcomes for vulnerable people in Social Care settings with their app, to Milbotix, which has created revolutionary ‘Smart socks’ that track rising distress in the wearer to improve the wellbeing of millions of people living with dementia, non-verbal autism and other conditions that affect communication, these groundbreaking innovations are changing the way people with long term conditions live.

Continuing on an upward trajectory

Whilst the South West is leading the way in health tech, we need to ensure the sector is receiving the necessary support to continue building life alternative technologies. The tech community in our region is fortunate to have a long list of support systems, from accelerators such as SETsquared, Science Creates and NatWest, to projects such as the Investment Activator Programme that supports startups accessing the funding they require to turn a concept into a reality.

The AHSN’s national remit is to support economic growth, so Rosie and the team there play a key role in promoting the UK and NHS as places to do innovation at both local and national levels. She tells us, “Collectively we are developing a rich national pipeline of demonstrably useful, evidence-based innovations, and health tech makes up a significant proportion of this.”

This is an ongoing, invaluable process to our community, as Rosie explains: “By continuing to nurture the already rich innovation ecosystem in the West of England, through our work in partnership with industry, research and academic partners, we are well placed to feed this vibrant innovation pipeline growing in this region and ultimately deliver sector growth. We also work closely with regional development agencies, such as the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and the West of England Combined Authority (WECA), on how we can better recognise the contribution of our health tech sector and provide further support.

“And we are always interested in developing new collaborations that can help grow the sector or tackle local challenges, so if anyone is interested in working with us please get in touch at”

Fiona highlights that talent is a key barrier to growth in the South West right now. She says, “Developing, growing and retaining talent in health tech, like all technology sectors right now, is a real challenge. Health tech has a powerful purpose but as a sector we aren’t good at sharing how exciting, challenging, fulfilling and down-right awesome health tech can be. Amazing careers are born and made in health tech and we need more support to raise the profile of that! 

“This is particularly important when considering diversity and inclusion. The technology sector as a whole faces legitimate scrutiny in regards to this, but in health, representation could not be more important in order to ensure we are making innovations work for everyone. One Healthtech aims to drive better equality, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility in health tech to ensure that everyone benefits, and we welcome any other networks, organisations or individuals joining us to spread that message.”

Speaking from the perspective of a health tech company, Garry explains that Earswitch’s biggest challenge is that they are “often accused of not having focus, especially by potential investors. I think this reflects our position as an R&D startup in that we are focussed, just on a sensor in the ear, and the power of the data, information and control that can come from this, rather than one specific product or market. 

“We feel this is our superpower, but sometimes this big vision is hard to get across. Maybe all revolutionary or paradigm shifting technologies suffer from this?”

Thanks to Rosie, Fiona and Garry for talking with us about all things health tech. Make sure to check out our health tech page for more content on the sector.