Catalysing Innovation Funding for Healthy Ageing

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21st January 2021

As we live for longer, significant efforts are needed across academia and industry to create products and services that add quality years to later life. In this blog Tim Shakespeare, Research and Innovation Design Manager at Zinc, reports on an event bringing together experts in ageing research, funding and public involvement to discuss the path ahead.

Categories:
Blog, Event Report, The Individual and Zinc

Part of my role at Zinc involves supporting our partnership with UKRI on delivering the Healthy Ageing Catalyst Awards, an innovation funding scheme offering a £62,500 grant and programme of support to help academics translate research into workable products and services that help people live longer, healthier lives. The ‘Catalysing Innovation Funding for Healthy Ageing’ event was a welcome opportunity to step back and hear about wider priorities and strategies to create successful innovation for healthy ageing. 

The panel event was hosted by ZincAgeing Research at King’s and Aging2.0 and brought together Lynne Corner (Director of VOICE), Christina Victor (Professor of Gerontology at Brunel University) and George MacGinnis (Challenge Director for Healthy Ageing, UK Research and Innovation) to explore how we can accelerate innovation, funding and collaboration in research to address the biggest challenges and opportunities in healthy ageing.  

After hearing each panelist share their perspectives on innovation in healthy ageing there were three themes I thought were particularly interesting to summarise in this blog. 

Improving quality in later life innovation 

In the UK we are living for longer than previous generations, but in his introduction George MacGinnis highlighted that it is improving wellbeing in later life, rather than necessarily longer lives that should be our priority. The Government’s Ageing Society Grand Challenge aims to add five extra years of healthy living by 2035, while narrowing the gap between the experience of the richest and poorest. However, a recent report from the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee finds that we are not on track to meet the ambition to add years of healthy living or to reduce inequalities.  

George reflected that previous investment in innovation for healthy ageing hasn’t had the impact that was hoped for, sharing a report that UKRI commissioned on this topic. He commented that previous work too often focused late in the life course with medicalised or stigmatising innovations, sought to make a case for increased funding which has not been easy to achieve, and focused too little on real needs and problems as people experience them. He explained that the Healthy Ageing Catalyst Awards are designed to address some of these issues by encouraging solutions based on a deep understanding of the problems people experience and providing a programme of support from the earliest stages (a key learning for success from the start-up community). 

Tackling inequalities 

The extent of health inequalities in ageing was laid bare by Professor Christina Victor. ONS statistics show a significant gap between regions of the UK, with a difference of more than 10 years in life expectancy at birth between regions in the UK with the shortest and longest life expectancy for men (Westminster 83.9 years; Glasgow City 73.4 years), and just over 8 years for women (Camden 87.0 years; Glasgow City 78.7 years). But even more striking is the difference in the number of healthy years people are expected to experience. The gap in healthy life expectancy at birth between local areas of the UK is 18.6 years for males and 19.1 years for females. On average women in the Orkney Islands are expected to have 73.3 healthy years whilst women in Nottingham are expected to experience only 54.2 healthy years. 

For all of us interested in improving people’s health and wellbeing as they age this is an important reminder that we should not underestimate the second part of the Government’s Ageing Society Grand Challenge, narrowing the gap between the experience of the richest and poorest. Professor Victor challenged us to consider whose voices are not being heard, whose voices are excluded from the debate on developing solutions. 

Co-designing with users and working across disciplines 

Professor Lynne Corner promoted the importance of innovation based on what people really need, rather than a preconceived notion about what people want. Co-designing solutions with users, not just for them, can help unlock further insights and deliver solutions that work in the real world.  Professor Corner suggested that a shift from a focus solely on health, to a focus on wider wellbeing is helpful as it brings into focus the fact that problems associated with ageing are complex and no one organisation can tackle them alone. For example, this focus on wellbeing brings into the picture the importance of the volunteering sector and family or friends who provide unpaid care. 

The drive to improve wellbeing in later life can have implications for every aspect of life, throughout our life course, from the food we buy, the activities we do and products we use, to our work lives and personal finances. Professor Corner highlighted the opportunity to learn from consumers about what they see as the gaps, and to design aspirational, fun products that have beneficial effects throughout the life course. The intelligence gathered by VOICE helps to find where these gaps are, providing useful information for researchers and businesses that are innovating in this space. 

We are supporting researchers to make a difference on these issues through the UKRI Healthy Ageing Catalyst Awards. If you are a researcher interested in translating your work to create innovative new products and services that add quality to later life, perhaps tackling some of the themes from this event, please visit zinc.vc/catalyst to learn more. 


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