How social distancing is boosting demand for the digital healthcare and education sectors

Serial entrepreneur Bob Gomersall has spent the last 35 years planning for social distancing and now needs £3m investment to fund his firm’s rapid growth , writes Lizzie Murphy.

Bob Gomersall, founder and chairman of BTL Group, Virtual College and ADI

He believed that within 10 years everyone would have ditched paper for screens when it came to assessments. “I couldn’t have been more wrong,” he laughs.

Although huge progress was made, it’s only now that we could be reaching the tipping point when it comes to using digital education and healthcare techniques.

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Over the last 35 years, Mr Gomersall, former head of physics at Bradford Grammar School, has founded - and currently chairs - three distance education and healthcare companies: exam assessment technology firm, BTL Group, digital vocational learning company Virtual College and, most recently, health and care technology company Advanced Digital Innovation (ADI).

In a new era of social distancing, Mr Gomersall’s services have never been in more demand and as such, he is facing an unusual challenge in the Covid-19 pandemic - how to make sure his businesses, particularly ADI, don’t grow too quickly.

“Things changed overnight really,” he says, referring to when the UK went into lockdown on March 23.

“The challenges were always about getting new customers and so on. Now it’s going to be about managing growth. Customers are chasing us at the moment.”

The fastest growing company is Shipley-based ADI, which was set up as a limited company in 2012 to solve innovation challenges within the NHS and the defence industry. Now entirely focused on providing telehealth solutions for patients’ complex care needs through its remote care platform My Pathway, the business works with NHS Trusts around the UK and overseas.

The technology removes the need for appointment calls and letters, and enables patients to access online advice on how to manage their condition, attend virtual appointments with their consultant and book face-to-face appointments where needed.

In recent months, 33,000 new patients have signed up to the platform, taking total patient users to nearly 60,000.

The business, has recently secured six major contract wins with NHS Leeds CCG, NHS Sheffield CCG, Sheffield Institute for Translational Neuroscience/University of Sheffield, North West Boroughs Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust and Trinity College Dublin for Ireland’s Health Service Executive.

MyPathway is now being used to provide care and physiotherapy for conditions including motor neuron disease, musculoskeletal problems and chronic pain as NHS Trusts drive a rapid shift to online care for patients prevented from visiting hospitals due to the pandemic. But Mr Gomersall believes its potential is colossal.

Mr Gomersall says COVID-19 has created, almost overnight, a transformational change in the NHS towards embracing new ways of communicating and caring for patients.

“Within a lot of bodies, like the NHS and education, you can always find reasons not to do things, then suddenly, what’s happened now is just shaking everything up,” he said.

He adds: “The bulk of traditional services has already gone online and the last sectors are healthcare and education. In the last few weeks, doors that were previously closed to us have been flung open.”

In August 2019, ADI secured £650,000 funding from Mercia Equity Finance, part of the Northern Powerhouse Investment Fund, to boost uptake of MyPathway.

It is now looking to fund its next growth phase with a £3m investment as it forecasts sales revenue to rise from £377,000 for the year ending March 2020 to £5m for the year ending March 2023.

Most of this growth will come from two main areas: Rolling out existing proven pathways, including muscular skeletal and chronic pain, to other healthcare providers in the UK and overseas, and developing up to 800 clinical pathways (from 25 currently) for sale to both existing clients and new healthcare clients.

ADI, which currently employs 14 staff, plus seven outsourced developers overseas, intends to recruit a further 14 members of staff over the next year and create around seven jobs over the next three years.

“A lot of the sales come through recommendation,” Mr Gomersall says. “One of the things about the health services is once you’ve got in there with one body, they’ll tell other people. The focus is on delivering a good service.”

He adds: “But growth needs be done in a controlled way. If we try to go too far too fast we’ll lose control of the quality and that’s absolutely critical to this.”

Meanwhile, BTL Group is also seeing its popularity grow.

The £18m turnover company, which was founded in the mid-1980s and employs 159 people in the UK, plus 70 overseas, recently won the Queens Award for Enterprise for International Growth.

Mr Gomersall says the Shipley-based business, whose clients include exam boards and professional associations, is growing quickly. “Exam boards for A-levels and GCSEs have held back from using the technology until recently. All of a sudden, during covid, there has been a big surge of interest,” he says.

Meanwhile, Ilkley-based Virtual College, which has a £13m turnover and employs 131 people, hit its four millionth learner milestone last week.

Two days after Boris Johnson’s announcement on schools reopening, it saw 11,000 new registrations in one day, compared to its 1,500 per day average. “11,000 in one day is quite staggering,” admits Mr Gomersall.

He adds: “I’ve been saying for years that online learning, and now healthcare, is going to move online but suddenly covid has just tipped it into large scale uptake across the board.”