Health & Wellbeing

A healthy approach to innovation


Published Aug 24, 2018

An innovation programme involving the New Zealand Health Innovation Hub (NZHIH) and Viclink—designed to help improve health outcomes for Kiwis—could potentially have global impact thanks to one of the first ideas to be commercialised under the programme. 

The NZHIH is a partnership between three DHBs: Auckland, Canterbury and Counties Manukau—with support from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. It was established in 2012 to help DHB innovators develop their smart ideas into new products and services that make a real difference to people’s health, reduce the cost of care and make clinicians’ jobs easier and more effective. 

“When you’re looking for good ideas to improve the health system, who better to ask than the people who are working in that space every day, who see first-hand where and how improvements could be made,” says Sunil Vather, Viclink’s commercialisation lead for NZHIH. “It just makes sense to tap into these ideas and commercialise them, so they can benefit everybody in the health sector.” 

After some early trials and tribulations, NZHIH sought additional commercialisation expertise via a tender process in 2016. Viclink won the 12-month contract—against stiff competition—and began reviewing the ideas in the NZHIH pipeline, quickly identifying the commercial potential of one in particular. 

Dr William Abbott from the Auckland District Health Board had made a serendipitous discovery: he found that active liver inflammation caused by the infectious hepatitis B virus (HBV), specifically genotype C, could be detected one to eight years before serious complications occurred—using a cost-effective and non-invasive diagnostic test. 

“Untreated, long-term liver inflammation leads to cirrhosis and cancer,” says Sunil. “In many cases, if someone has HBV, and it’s detected early with a blood test, the patient can be treated to prevent it from developing into a life-threatening illness. The problem is, for people who have genotype C HBV, that same blood test may not show existing liver inflammation, meaning they miss the opportunity for treatment and go on to develop cirrhosis and cancer.” 

Sunil says that Dr Abbott’s innovative diagnostic test could be a game-changer for the millions of genotype C patients in China. 

“Liver biopsies carry risks and are not popular in China, so a non-invasive diagnostic alternative will be welcomed wholeheartedly.” 

He says that Viclink’s established networks in China are proving invaluable to the commercialisation process. 

“We’re not only working closely with Professor Jin-Lin Hou—one of the world’s foremost hepatologists—from China’s Southern Medical University, we are also seeking investment from a major Chinese pharmaceutical company that is currently carrying out due diligence. Any funding will be used to validate the test in China and develop prototype diagnostic kits.” 

Once the development work in China is complete, the test will be made available for Australian, New Zealand, Pacific and Maori people with genotype C—a genotype that’s more commonly found in the Maori population than European. 

“Being able to develop the diagnostic test using China’s economies of scale means we can ultimately offer the product to New Zealanders; if we’d had to develop it on a significantly smaller New Zealand scale, the expense would have prevented the project from ever getting off the ground,” explains Sunil. 

Other NZHIH pipeline projects identified as having commercial potential include an ear splint to help correct children’s ear disorders, an app that reminds rheumatic fever patients to get their monthly injections, and a tracheostomy device that is designed to substantially improve the lives of people that use permanent trachy tubes—which are all in various stages of development. 

Viclink’s Geoff Todd, who is a member of the NZHIH Board, says that the Executive Leadership Team meet once a month to rigorously triage ideas. 

“While any final decision-making lies with NZHIH, our job is to advise them on the best ways to apply their resources on the projects we think have the best chance of success,” says Geoff. “We’re delighted that they value our input and have renewed our contract for a further 12 months.” 

He says that in addition to developing existing pipeline projects, next steps include creating a marketing and communications plan to ensure that staff from all three DHBs continue to feed the pipeline with their smart ideas.

For more information, please email Sunil Vather.