By Kenny Campbell on 9 July 2017
Brexit brain drain… Why a health tech storm is brewing.
A year ago, we took a look at how the health tech world was digesting Brexit, and found experts putting a brave face on things. Now the dust has settled, ever so slightly, we talk to three health tech specialists and find opinions have changed a little as the realities of leaving the EU have to be addressed.
What’s your Brexit brainache? Trade? Red tape? Uncertainty?
Those in the health tech sector have concerns about all of these but the biggest brainache may come from a brain drain.
With Britain’s recorded unemployment at the lowest levels since the 1970s, recruitment is already proving difficult for some, particularly for businesses looking for skilled workers.
While there have been plenty of warnings that Brexit will increase unemployment in Britain, the health tech world is more worried about being hit by a recruitment double whammy.
Britain could struggle to attract talent.
Health tech entrepreneur Simon Hudson, the co-founder of digital transformation specialist Cloud2, said: “There is genuine concern about shrinking market opportunities and a change in the dynamics of opportunity, but probably more challenging is the reduction in our ability to get skilled staff. “That will hamper our ability to compete with our neighbours in Europe.”
British companies have already complained that they face a growing struggle to attract overseas talent – hospitality, agriculture, construction and car industries are among those ringing alarm bells – and recent research by career website Hired suggested the number of overseas candidates who accepted job offers from UK-based companies had halved since the Brexit vote in June 2016.
But a second recruitment problem is looming as well. The much-discussed Millennial generation is, amongst other things, exceptionally mobile.
Mr Hudson said: “The young are much more likely to look elsewhere and I expect young talent will look much more voraciously overseas for careers.”
So not only could Britain be struggling to attract talented additions to its workforce, it could see many of its finest young minds vanishing overseas where, presumably, their talents will be used by Britain’s competitors.
Mr Hudson added: “It’s not all doom and gloom, but it will be several years before this all plays out.”
His concerns were echoed by another health tech expert, Felix Jackson, the founder of digital communications companies medDigital and medCrowd. He said: “Personally, I’ve not seen an impact on our sector yet, but the key is that Brexit hasn’t happened yet.
If Britain ceases to be No.1, we could drop down through the field rapidly.
“We may find that people vote with their feet. Clinical researchers and those in academia are already struggling with recruitment and it’s being reported that there is already a marked decrease in applicants from Europe.
“Previously, Europeans would come to the UK for a couple of years to make their mark and work on their English.”
Britain has been the world’s health tech gateway to Europe but that position is now very much under threat from places such as Berlin and Amsterdam.
Mr Jackson added: “Say Berlin becomes the new gateway to Europe – we’ll see not just Britain’s supply of European talent drying up, but also Britons moving out. If I needed a new office in Europe, I’d set up in Berlin, Dublin or Amsterdam.”
He held out a measure of hope, though, saying: “We do start from a position of advantage – we’re the leader and we’re cheaper, thanks to a weak pound.
“But that might not be the case in five years and, if we cease to be No.1, we could drop down through the field rapidly.
“What’s really frustrating is that, just a couple of years ago, there was a real feeling of excitement in London that we were leaders in digital tech. Silicon Valley and Silicon Roundabout were where it was at for digital healthcare.
“I do fear that, as this excitement dies away, the paint will start peeling on Silicon Roundabout’s walls and we will lose our way.”
Storm clouds gathering over the recruitment landscape
Another entrepreneur expressing similar concerns is Tom Whicher, a co-founder of health appointment scheduling app DrDoctor.
He said: “There are already fewer European health tech companies coming to London. Eighteen months ago, I went to a VC dinner; there were six start-ups around the table and four of them were from Europe. At meetings in London now it tends to be British companies.
“Although Brexit hasn’t changed our optimism and it’s still very buoyant, we’re seeing fewer European outfits coming over here.”
Mr Whicher is also seeing storm clouds gathering over the recruitment landscape.
He said: “One area of difficulty is talent – we get CVs from all over the world and they’ve already dropped off.
“It’s going to be harder to find new people and that’s going to make it harder to do business.”
Voters were told a lie.
Both Mr Jackson and Mr Hudson remain angry at how the Brexit vote played out and about the direction Britain now appears to be taking.
Mr Hudson said: “It’s been over a year and I’m just as upset as I was in June last year. I’m disillusioned to the point where I’m making changes in both my business and my lifestyle.
“My daughter is studying modern technology and she’s off to Ottawa next year. It wouldn’t surprise me if she decides to build her career overseas.
“I do believe the UK should get a chance to reflect before we step away from our neighbours, just like we would in a divorce.”
Mr Jackson was even more forthright. He said: “Brexit voters were told a lie.
“An accountant who lied would lose their licence, a lying doctor would at least be struck off. “The things people such as Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson said to the electorate had a real impact. “Those who lied to the public should be taken to court and held accountable.”
The British health tech sector’s attitudes towards Brexit, then, certainly aren’t softening and may well be further hardening.
How much of its present market advantage can it salvage in the months ahead? World-leading innovation, clear communication and a never-say-die attitude will help, but you can be sure our European friends are ready to pick off any juicy health tech morsels which are left unguarded.
The apocryphal “Chinese curse”, May You Live in Interesting Times, has never seemed more appropriate.