Takeaways from an insightful interview with Dr Will Bolton, Co-Founder of MTF. For readers interested in developing surgical technologies, pursuing a PhD or building your own team. Part of a spotlight series on inspiring individuals.
In 2015, Will Bolton and his colleagues were faced with a problem—as medical students, they were interested in medical technology, but lacked opportunities to collaborate with people in other fields, such as engineers and physicists. They had seen multidisciplinary teams (MDTs) come together in hospitals to discuss complex patient cases, but struggled to find the equivalent infrastructure for innovation in med tech. This was what led them to found the MedTech Foundation (MTF), which would serve as a platform for networking amongst disciplines whilst providing innovation training. They hoped to empower passionate people like themselves to take an idea and grow it into something that could be implemented in clinical practice. Since then, Will has continued to foster innovation in the medical field, with a focus on surgery.
Read on to find out more about his journey in med tech and some of the lessons learned.
What did Will learn from the process of founding MTF?
Will discovered two key factors in setting up an organisation.
The first was to have an interdisciplinary team. People from different fields have different goals and interests in mind - a diverse team can help you understand the perspectives of various stakeholders. Then, being able to pitch your idea in an empathetic and tailored way can help you get more people on board to support your initiative. The second key is to seek senior support. Will explains that while student-led initiatives are important, having senior stakeholders to champion your cause can greatly increase your chances of success. These people may have gone through the challenges that you will face, and can help you make the case for your work to others. ‘You have the support to get things done—even little things like booking rooms, or finding speakers. When we set up MTF, we tried to do it as professionally as possible, writing what was almost a business case, and a one, three or five-year plan.’ Will had founded MTF with support from the NIHR Surgical MIC and acknowledges that their input has been invaluable.
“You have the support to get things done—even little things like booking rooms, or finding speakers. When we set up MTF, we tried to do it as professionally as possible, writing what was almost a business case, and a one, three or five-year plan.”
Moving on to a PhD
A few years after setting up MTF, Will pursued a PhD with the Global Health Research Group Surgical Technologies in Leeds, working on delivering and evaluating novel surgical technology in low-resource settings. The work was exciting (and challenging) because it consisted of not just research, but also product design and medical device development.
To tackle this cross-disciplinary work, Will collaborated with a team of engineers, trialists, global health specialists, health economists and surgeons. It was an MDT in another sense, which he enjoyed working in: ‘It was really fascinating to get people on the same page, and deliver projects which were new and trial-based.’
Not only was his team interdisciplinary, it was international. This was what helped him overcome challenges that ensued from working in countries operating with different healthcare systems, infrastructures and languages. Working with different healthcare systems has also allowed Will to come up with new ideas back in the NHS, as he continues to apply the skills gained from his PhD to develop and evaluate surgical technologies.
What's inspired Will lately?
We asked Will to share what has inspired him lately, and he chose something outside of medicine or surgery—a recent series on BBC called Universe presented by Professor Brian Cox. Will describes it as a “Planet Earth-type documentary but for space lovers and physics lovers”. He cites his interest in physics as another reason why he is keen to collaborate with physicists in his work. To him, the story of where the universe came from is profoundly inspiring.
Will is currently an NIHR Academic Clinical Fellow in Neurosurgery at the University of Leeds, where he is working with a team to build a new programme of surgical technology research. He is interested in an array of applications of technology in healthcare—for example the use of immersive technologies (such as VR and AR), with purposes ranging from the training of healthcare professionals to preoperative planning and patient education. He is also interested in robotics and AI (which we have written about here). These may sound like separate entities, but Will comments that the two are both mass technologies where one product can be built and, once scaled, have a disproportionate impact.
Lastly, with the experience from his PhD, he works on developing frugal technologies for surgical care in developing countries, particularly for neurosurgery. ‘Frugal innovation’ may be an unfamiliar term to some of us, but Will explains that it can be seen as a mindset in innovation—the ability to recognise what core elements are needed to efficiently solve a problem and maximise your impact. In practice, it can range from seeking reusable alternatives for disposable equipment, to developing lean processes. Will describes a hypothetical example of following up with patients post-operatively using a text message survey: ‘That's a frugal innovation because it gets people out of hospital using technology you already have in your pocket. You don't even need a smartphone or internet connection.’ It’s the art of doing more with less, applied to solving problems in healthcare. ‘You can make a high-tech thing frugally, for example a robot that was specific for working in an austere environment. That would be more frugal than a robot that's not suited for the environment—that would break if you use the wrong plug, or that is reliant on 5G for example.’
Will’s top innovation tips
For anyone interested in innovating in the medical field, Will’s advice is to, instead of diving straight into methods or products, first find an unmet need. Indeed, innovation is not about what we want, but what is needed of us. Then, his next piece of advice is to (as simple-sounding as it is difficult) persevere. ‘Go for it, even if you're a student or a junior trainee. It doesn't matter what stage you are at. Definitely try and do the two things that I mentioned—find some senior support and build a team around you. And just keep working at it. It won't always go well. Your first idea will not be as good as your last idea, so just keep trying,’ says Will. “We need as many innovators as we can in the NHS and in med tech. Innovators are people who are willing to just keep going, endure the bad times and celebrate the good times.’
“Go for it, even if you’re a student or a junior trainee. It doesn’t matter what stage you are at. Definitely try and do the two things that I mentioned—find some senior support and build a team around you. And just keep working at it. It won’t always go well. Your first idea will not be as good as your last idea, so just keep trying,”
How to contact Dr Will Bolton
When asked why this was his Twitter handle, Will talked about his love for tigers and how he has been adopting tigers to support conservation efforts for the currently endangered animal. We think this is just as inspiring as the work he has done in med tech. Wildlife conservation is a challenge of its own, but one could possibly argue that some of its keys also lie in frugal innovation and the ability to run effective MDTs.
Victoria is a fourth-year medical student at University College London. She often finds herself leaning towards the creative sides of medicine and technology, having written up interviews with clinicians and worked on product design at an edtech startup. At MTF, she hopes to help inspire the community by creating content and celebrating people who do great work in med tech.
Edward is an intercalating fourth-year medical student at the University of Leeds currently studying MSc Enterprise and Entrepreneurship. He has a strong interest in healthcare entrepreneurship, digital healthcare and digital transformation. Edward is the National Content Director at MedTech Foundation.