The thought of “I can do this better” is one of the key drivers for many of the people that approach the University of New England’s SMART Regions Incubator (SRI).
The importance of initiatives such as UNE’s SRI have been highlighted over the past few months as society struggles to adapt to the changes we’ve had to face this year due to COVID-19.
If we look to draw a positive out of the experiences of 2020 it is that innovators in healthcare and other vital services have had an opportunity to gain recognition for some of the work they’ve put in behind the scenes to ensure we have equal access to services regardless of where we live or what our current health situation is.
The SRI has been at the forefront of innovation, providing support for start-ups across a broad range of sectors including agtech, education and health. The healthcare initiatives that have received support from the SRI range from digital health services, to work and safety and benefit regional Australians of all ages.
Dr Lou Conway leads the SRI and emphasises the importance of providing support in situ for regional entrepreneurs so that ideas can be developed and researched from within the communities these new products and services will benefit.
When people have close proximity to the challenges at hand, whether they be providing health services to people in remote locations or hospital experiences and equipment, it offers a great place to grow a solution that has the potential for a much bigger market by accessing other regional communities
Dr Lou Conway
SRI does this through a combination of running bootcamps for entrepreneurs and offering collaborative workspaces across the North West of NSW. Bootcamps are targeted not just at people who already have an idea for a start-up or improved service but also for students to teach them about entrepreneurship and to encourage young talent to remain in regional areas.
The SRI supports upwards of 60 start-ups from across regional Australia and whilst some of the ideas are for products, many are based around ideas for improved service delivery from healthcare providers in regional Australia.
Dr Conway highlights the benefit of providing a hub for regionally-based entrepreneurs, whether they be starting businesses or social enterprises.
“It creates a type of virtuous circle, with UNE’s staff offering guidance and expertise to local businesses and the growth in skilled jobs attracting additional talent to the region,” she said.
She is focussed on the importance of encouraging new ideas to be developed in a regional setting.
“When people have close proximity to the challenges at hand, whether they be providing health services to people in remote locations or hospital experiences and equipment, it offers a great place to grow a solution that has the potential for a much bigger market by accessing other regional communities,” Dr Conway said.
Highlighting one of the key issues that regional Australia faces is the need to provide services of distance. Looking forward, Dr Conway says many of the ideas brought to the SRI for support may initially start out as ideas to provide additional services or support to a local community, but that these ideas for online or telehealth or teleservices have potential to be scaled up to provide support on a nationwide, if not global level, to other remote and regional communities.
One of the differences Dr Conway sees in health start-ups in regional Australia is that they are led by healthcare practitioners who see a gap in the services available to their patients.
Edwina Sharrock the founder of Birthbeat, came up with her idea through her work as a midwife in Tamworth. She saw a lack of opportunity for expectant parents in rural communities to attend prenatal classes, thus Birthbeat was born. The service provides the opportunity for both online and onsite prenatal and first aid classes for parents.
At the other end of life, ExSitu is a start-up that was founded by two nurses who wanted to improve the quality of care for those in aged care.
“These ideas are brought to us by members of the community who see a niche in the market for services that can benefit them, their patients and their family members,” Dr Conway said highlighting some of these initiatives.
Another success story from the SRI is the Spinifex Network which draws on the skills of a broad range of agencies and individuals across the health sector. Amongst the many activities the Spinifex Network is involved in is a program called the Embedded Economist. This project looks to measure the economic benefit of health services and how initial investment can significantly reduce future costs of treatment.
Looking at the nexus between research and services is one of the key drivers for many health initiatives supported by UNE’s SRI. Dr Conway emphasises that one of the important things to come out of SRI is for organisations such as the Spinifex Network to ask the question,”what research needs to be done to support and improve the health outcomes of regional communities?”
If there are any positives to come out of COVID-19 Dr Conway believes one may be a significant push to change the way we operate and the way services are provided to regional and rural communities.
This drive to empower communities and individuals in remote Australia is what marks out the SRI and ideas it helps bring to life. By creating a network for people in regional areas to implement ideas to benefit the communities they live in. Without creating a visible support structure for the communities of Armidale, Wagga, Tamworth or Orange would these ideas be brought to the table?
Currently there is a push to provide services online, with a significant proportion of the ideas brought to the SRI being in telehealth.