A leading academic health and science network figure has urged NHS England to give the new innovation networks 18 months to prove themselves and outlined the rationale behind them being set up as limited companies.

Eastern Academic Health Science Network managing director Robert Winter told HSJ that in 18 months “we will have proof of concept about whether AHSNs can provide innovation in a more efficient and effective way”.

He added: “We are able to challenge the current paradigms of care across the areas that we have chosen. 

“The AHSNs are positioned as one of the few organisations in the new NHS which could, and I stress could, provide the clinical and academic leadership that is necessary to get an NHS for the 21st century.”

He said the networks setting themselves up as not for profit limited companies was the best way to “allowed maximum access to non NHS partners, universities and businesses, so we get the three-way collaboration between industry, academia and clinicians”.

“We have as our central aim: direct and indirect benefit to NHS patients,” he said. “This model was a direct copy of the model that was successful for the academic health science centre.”  

HSJ understands some of the networks are currently set up as part of NHS organisations but these are mainly interim arrangements before they acquire limited company status.

The Eastern AHSN has a heavyweight board including chair Sir Mike Rawlins, who was previously chair of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. 

Its priority areas are dementia, long term conditions (cardiac disease, cancer, diabetes and chronic respiratory diseases) and patient safety.

The East of England region is home to the largest bioscience cluster outside the US.

The AHSN hosts the national small business research initiative for healthcare on behalf of NHS England and is engaging with companies including pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca.  

The network has split its regional patch into four “nodes” which are centred around already established communities in Cambridge and Peterborough; Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire; Essex and Norfolk and Suffolk.