Prior to the COVID outbreak Rebecca Porter, Managing Director at BlueKit Medical, took part in the Health Innovation Programme (HIP) – a comprehensive business support programme designed for healthcare and life science businesses at various stages of development.

In this blog she reflects on how the programme helped her business to adapt to the challenges created by COVID.

My dad worked as a theatre charge nurse and surgeon’s assistant and set BlueKit Medical up as a life-long ambition, having realised that there was potential to improve the provision of surgical kits and procedure packs.

I joined the company to develop the business, looking at our product base and determining how we could better take it to market.

When I heard about the Health Innovation Programme (HIP) I realised that it was an amazing opportunity for the business, allowing us to revise our business plans and long-term strategy and to determine exactly what our offer was.

The HIP also offered the opportunity for personal evaluation, and I really valued the chance to learn how to properly pitch the business. After the course, and with follow-on support from KSS AHSN, I had a strong investment plan and was feeling confident enough to speak to my first potential investor. And then COVID hit.

All Change

My dad wasn’t able to come in to work anymore because he was shielding, and my one employee was also no longer able to work.

At this point my main products supported elective surgery in primary care, and we quickly heard government announcements telling hospitals to suspend elective surgery. I realised that I needed to adapt to the situation, and that if we didn’t busines would cease.

While we weren’t strictly delivering PPE, I knew that a lot of my existing customers were looking for it; I was getting calls from people saying they couldn’t source aprons or gowns, and so we decided to respond to those requests.

At that stage my existing suppliers in China were able to get products to me very quickly, albeit at a higher price. Because we were small and agile, we were able to respond very quickly, but the situation soon changed.

Before long, the Chinese government imposed export controls on Chinese manufactured COVID-19 medical products, as many countries did, permitting only a small selection of named companies to export PPE abroad, and my supplier wasn’t one of them.

We then started to see the bigger players catch up. They’d invested heavily in PPE and essentially kicked us out of the game – the moment I saw facemasks for sale in a high-street bookstore chain I knew that we just couldn’t be as competitive with our existing supply chain approach.

Adapting To Change

So, it was a case of really having to respond to the changing situation, and at the core of that it was vital that I listened to what my customers were asking for. Instead of coming to me for elective surgery kits, GP customers wanted gowns, aprons, gloves and masks. To meet that need I had to look at some bigger distribution deals, where I bought and sold in bulk, but kept some of that stock back to support my customers.

We also looked to expand our customer base via the internet. Traditionally, we’d make contacts by exhibiting at specialist conferences, but because of COVID we accelerated plans to move into e-commerce and started to do a lot more on social media to promote the business.

These changes were essential in helping the business to continue through COVID. But while we were taking to new approaches it was vital that we didn’t just jump on any opportunity that came our way.

Sticking To Our Core Business

We’ve always tailored our offering to match our customers’ needs, and our approach during COVID has been the same – we’ve looked at how our customers work, and we’ve put together packages that meet their needs in the current environment.

We’re also making sure that we focus on our long term goals such as increasing our channels of distribution and bidding for more tenders, and the contacts we’ve made during COVID will help us to realise those aims.

While COVID has caused us to challenge and change our way of working, having a strong understanding of our core business model has helped us to make positive, practical changes.

So yes, our first meeting with an investor was called off due to COVID, but the work we’d done in preparation meant we had a strong financial forecast. One of my first deals at the start of COVID was facilitated by the bank extending my overdraft. We were also able to secure a bounce back loan which allowed us to have a little more cash flow – neither of these would’ve been possible without that depth of understanding I gained via the HIP.

Network Support

We also received a lot of support from Nuala at KSS AHSN. She seems to know exactly where I’m coming from and what I’m having to contend with. Through the AHSN we’ve been able to reach a much a wider network which has helped to open up potential new markets.

It’s been a scary few months, but it’s definitely been exciting and we’ve constantly had to entertain new things. But that’s a real benefit of being a smaller company, some of the larger organisations are like oil tankers, they can’t change course as quickly as we can.