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We find out from nurses who have turned their innovative ideas into fully fledged businesses and social enterprises
As an advanced nurse practitioner in a general practice in a small Yorkshire community, Helen O’Connell was aware that many people coming to the surgery were not in need of medical treatment.
Nursing Management. 31, 1, 15-16. doi: 10.7748/nm.31.1.15.s6
Published: 01 February 2024
‘Whether they were hungry, lonely or, for example, struggling to cope with their teenager’s mental health issues, I would say that for 20% of our patients, the need was more for what we would call social prescribing,’ she says.
Ms O’Connell wanted to do something practical to help, so decided to set up a food bank. ‘Talking to people who came to use the food bank made me realise people don’t know where to go to seek help when something goes wrong in their lives – that’s how I formed the idea for social prescribing website Treacle.me.’
Treacle.me is a free and easy to use social prescribing directory that gathers together information about small local groups – as well as national help and support – into one site.
‘I spoke to a web designer who lived in the village, who told me it would cost £1,000 to create the kind of website I was after,’ says Ms O’Connell, a finalist in the community and general practice nursing category at the 2023 RCN Nursing Awards for creating Treacle.me.
» Start writing things down ‘If you have an idea, draw pictures of it, make notes and gradually add to it,’ advises Neomi Bennett, nurse and founder of Neo-Slip
» Value your skills and experience ‘Nurses think they don’t have certain skills, such as sales, but they do,’ says Ms Bennett. ‘For example, selling your product or idea is like persuading a patient to take their medication or do more exercise – even if they don’t want to. Nurses are very adaptable and are good at communication, problem solving and risk assessment.’
» Be bold ‘If you’ve spotted a gap, you know the context and you’ve thought through the pros and cons, don’t let go of it,’ says Matty Cain, mental health nurse and founder of First Person Project
» Try not to worry about others stealing your idea ‘You can’t steal someone’s passion to do that and overcome the obstacles,’ says Ms Bennet
» Attend trade fairs and exhibitions ‘These can be invaluable for meeting people who can help you,’ says Ms Bennet. ‘One company even invited me to display Neo-Slip on their stand’
» Surround yourself with people who believe in you ‘I met people who were so positive about Treacle.me that they wanted to come and work with me,’ says Helen O’Connell, nurse and founder of social enterprise Treacle.me. ‘Having positive voices around you spurs you on’
» Do some research into what training courses are available, advises Ms O’Connell. The NHS Innovation Accelerator, for example, provides significant support and training to individuals innovating in the healthcare system
‘Some years ago, a patient had left the practice some money in their will, to be spent for the good of the community,’ she says. ‘At the next practice meeting, I said: “I’ve got an idea for a website, and could I have £1,000 from the fund for it?”. Everyone at the meeting liked the idea, and the fact the work was going to someone in the village, and said yes. It was the spring of 2020, I had the £1,000 and I was off. I spent two to three months working with the web designer to create the site,’ adds Ms O’Connell.
‘There are so many small enterprises helping people in different ways, but they don’t have the money to promote themselves, so they were very happy to be on the website. I wanted it to be super-easy to log on and find help.’
Other nurse-innovators funded initial startups themselves, as well as researching and applying for grants.
RCN Nurse of the Year 2020 Ana Waddington won the award for her work founding YourStance, an initiative in which healthcare professionals teach life-saving skills to young people at risk of serious violence in London.
She says finding funding was the biggest obstacle she had to overcome in the early days. ‘For two years, I did everything with my own funding and donated items. I became exhausted by it,’ says Ms Waddington.
‘I then successfully applied for a grant from Barts Charity, which helped me to build the foundations of the organisation.’
Mental health nurse Matty Caine set up mental health support centre First Person Project in 2019. ‘I worked as an independent nurse for a while to raise the money to put into practice my vision for a people-powered mental health centre in Liverpool, which I was later able to set up and fund as a social enterprise,’ he says.
‘I had lots of ideas, straight from when I was at university, but I was always told things couldn’t be done a different way,’ says Mr Caine.
‘It was only when I’d gained more experience and reached a senior level that I had the confidence to innovate.’
He says tenacity and determination are key, alongside a belief in yourself and your idea.
‘Don’t stop asking: “Are we as efficient as possible?”. You have to have the courage to be disliked, to be misunderstood when you come up with ideas for doing things differently,’ he says.
Ms O’Connell agrees: ‘Don’t let someone tell you it can’t be done,’ she says.
All the nurse entrepreneurs we spoke to say they used their transferable nursing skills when getting their initiatives off the ground – alongside learning along the way, both on-the-job and through taking courses.
‘I had to learn the business administration side of things, often by trial and error,’ says Ms O’Connell. ‘I worked out we needed to be registered with Companies House as a community interest company with directors. I opened a social enterprise bank account with the bank that seemed the easiest to deal with at the time.
Neomi Bennett (pictured) won the innovations category at the 2019 RCN Nursing Awards for inventing Neo-Slip, designed to help people put on compression stockings.
‘I came up with the idea when I was a nursing student on placement and saw patients struggling to put on their compression stockings,’ says Ms Bennett.
‘I knew these stockings were potentially life-saving for them, but they just couldn’t manage them. I remember visiting one couple in their home and they were using the stockings as curtain ties because they couldn’t get them on.
Do things bit by bit
‘I was studying at Kingston University at the time, and my lecturers were really enthusiastic about the idea, which helped.
‘I even had business meetings at the university as I was getting the product off the ground.
‘It’s a myth that you need to have lots of money to get started – it’s better to do things bit by bit and use the resources that you have around you.
‘I also had some financial support from the Florence Nightingale Foundation.
Getting in to the NHS supply chain
‘There were lots of obstacles along the way, and it took a lot of determination to get the product out to patients.
Getting into the NHS supply chain is difficult – they do a huge amount of due diligence, so that everyone can have confidence in the products the NHS use.
‘Feedback from real patients was invaluable. I remember when we were trailing an early design, one gentleman said: “Neomi, we need to have a handle on the tip
– it gets stuck”. I went back to the manufacturer and we added a loop at the top of the Neo-Slip.
‘Our hope is to scale up in the future. We have just won a large-scale NHS contract and plan to increase our promotional efforts.
‘My advice to nurses who are thinking of starting something would definitely be to go for it. There are so many opportunities for innovating.’
‘I now employ three people part-time to keep the website up to date,’ she says. ‘That leaves me to do what I’m good at – going out to talk to people.’
Ms Waddington agrees that it is about knowing what your skills are, and then finding people who have skills to complement yours.
‘I am not skilled at grant writing but my co-director is amazing at it and has experience of grant applications. She is focused on applying for funding, and is the reason we are surviving financially.’
For Ms O’Connell, expanding the reach of Treacle.me has been a step-by-step process. ‘We are part of a GP super-partnership, who offered to pay me half a day a week to expand Treacle.me to a wider area,’ she says.
‘As time went on, I spotted some opportunities to advertise, even without a budget, to raise awareness.
‘Since getting Treacle.me up and running, it has been a continuing journey of facing new challenges and trying to get the idea taken up at a larger level. I had a significant two-year NHS investment to cover the Bradford District and Craven area, but that is due to run out in April this year, so our future is uncertain.
‘The most rewarding thing I’ve experienced is the positive feedback from so many different types of people – social workers, teachers, job centre staff – all of whom come into contact with people who need help and use the website.
‘I also have such positive messages from the public – that’s what I live and breathe for.’