Aston University launches SPARK The Midlands to support health tech innovation

  • SPARK The Midlands aims to provide academic support to advance healthcare research discoveries in the region
  • Hosted at Aston University, SPARK The Midlands forms part of the University’s work with the West Midlands Health Tech Innovation Accelerator
  • 12 projects will be supported initially, that address unmet clinical needs in diseases such as ulcerative colitis, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis and sepsis

Aston University has hosted an event to celebrate the launch of SPARK The Midlands, a network which aims to bridge the gap between medical research discoveries of novel therapeutics, medical devices and diagnostics, and real-world clinical use.

More than 40 people attended the event, which was held at Conference Aston on 31 January 2024. Attendees included the pioneer cohort members of SPARK The Midlands as well as key regional and national stakeholders including Midlands Mindforge, Department for Business and Trade, Birmingham Women’s and Children’s Hospital and the regional Universities. It was the first chance for the launch cohort to meet each other alongside key regional and national enablers of the UK’s translational ecosystem.

SPARK The Midlands is the first UK branch of Stanford University’s prestigious global SPARK programme. It comes as a result of Aston University’s active involvement in the delivery of the West Midlands Health Tech Innovation Accelerator (WMHTIA) – a government-funded project aimed at helping companies drive their innovations towards market success.

The SPARK scheme helps to provide mentorship and forge networks between researchers, those with technical and specialist knowledge and potential sources of funding. SPARK members have access to workshops led by industry experts, covering topics such as medical device regulations, establishing good clinical trials, and creating an enticing target product profile to engage future funders.

While SPARK The Midlands will be based at Aston University, it will support multiple projects across the West Midlands from other universities including Birmingham and Warwick, and institutions such as Birmingham Women’s and Children’s Hospital. It is also supporting a number of regional companies. Aston University researchers are involved in five of the 12 projects forming cohort one of SPARK The Midlands.

Dr Jill Johnson, from the School of Biosciences, will lead a project to develop a therapeutic for allergic asthma targeting tissue fibrosis, or scarring caused by damage to the lung tissue.

Dr Zhuo (Vivian) Wang, also from the School of Biosciences, is currently developing a small molecule drug targeting an enzyme that facilitates fibrosis in the heart. This therapeutic is planned to treat patients suffering from cardiovascular disease from hypertension and type 2 diabetes in the first instance.

Professor Andrew Devitt is leading the establishment of a spinout company, EVolution Therapeutics (EVo), to harness research he has carried out to understand the role of apoptosis, or cell death, in tissue regeneration and wound healing. EVo will develop a therapeutic small molecule to promote the healing of hard-to-treat wounds, such as diabetic foot ulcers.

Dr Jan Novak from the School of Psychology at Aston University will participate in a joint project with Birmingham Women’s and Children’s Hospital and the University of Birmingham to develop a device to categorise paediatric brain tumours using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. Based on 24 years of data, the device will be able to help determine what type of brain tumour a patient has and what surgical approach to take.

Professor Abdul Sadka, director of the Aston Digital Futures Institute, will lead a team developing new machine learning AI software which will aid in the diagnoses of certain lung conditions.

Luke Southan, SPARK UK director, said:

“It is a privilege to be launching the first UK SPARK cohort here in the West Midlands. We have a real opportunity here to support not only new, transformative, standards of care for areas of genuine unmet clinical need, but also to support the growth of a major innovation cluster for the region. In the Midlands we have world class universities, world-class research-intensive hospitals, and we should have a world-class industrial cluster. That is what SPARK will build.”

Pasi Sorvisto, founder and director of SPARK Finland and director of SPARK Europe, said:

“We are truly excited to have a SPARK programme in the UK. SPARK The Midlands is a perfect example of what coming together enables in the region.

“The beauty of our European network is that we have come together in supporting scientists, students and healthcare professionals in developing great new solutions and businesses. We share experiences of what works and what doesn’t, we provide joint webinars and mentoring, we have joint events, and we support each other in building new solutions and businesses to global markets. “Together” is maybe the most common word in discussions at European SPARK network. Since we have a global network of SPARK programmes associated with top-tier institutions, each and every project in Europe has opportunities to build high value connections through our global network.”

SPARK The Midlands will host its first educational workshop on Tuesday 13 February at 15:00 GMT. It will be a hybrid event, hosted at Aston University’s John Cadbury House, and online. It is open to anyone interested in developing a therapeutic, medical device or diagnostic for public use, including academics, researchers, scientists, healthcare professionals, and postgraduate students. For more information and tickets visit the Eventbrite page.

For more information about SPARK The Midlands, visit https://www.sparkthemidlands.co.uk/

For more information about Aston University’s role in the WMHTIA, visit https://www.aston.ac.uk/research/west-midlands-health-tech-innovation-accelerator

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