Interviews

Elemental: growing Derry-based leader in digital social prescribing

  • Derry-based Elemental is a growing tech for good startup that allows GPs to make and manage social prescription referrals into community programmes and offer services that will reduce health risks.

    In the same way a GP would write a prescription for medication, Elemental’s software makes it easier for them to issue a social prescription for debt advice, exercise, mindfulness or suicide bereavement counselling to tackle the social determinants that affect people’s health.

    Jennifer Neff explained to Sync NI that she had been delivering digital skills programmes in neighbourhoods to help people learn to use digital technology while Leeann Monk-Özgül was the programme manager of the Healthy Living Centre in Derry.

    “As community development workers we both saw people being told they would really benefit from engaging in local activities in their communities that they might not be aware of. We shared a frustration that people often didn’t know what was happening in their local area and we knew that they needed more support to attend and engage in these activities: it’s not enough to hand someone a phone number and expect them to go along.

    “And from the health commissioners’ side of the things, we could see money being spent on different initiatives in different areas but with no analytics about outcomes, engagement, gaps in service provision or health risk hotspots. They needed a better understanding of what was available and what was making to inform their commissioning and recommissioning decisions.

    “Our solution would allow a GP in Derry to refer someone suffering from mild depression to Bogside & Brandywell Health Forum or The Old Library Trust where a community development worker will sit down with the person and help them understand their basic health risks. The person will be able to choose from a menu of different activities, free swimming lessons one morning a week or perhaps joining a walking group and then moving onto a ‘Couch to 5K’ programme. They’re supported to choose what is important to them, their engagement levels are monitored, and the impact is tracked. The change in the patient’s health can be evaluated along with the difference it’s making to the health and social care sector.”

    As part of the City of Culture year, Derry promoted its digital business potential throughout the world. Jennifer remembers the “infectious optimism in the air” that made the pair wonder what role digital could play in health and wellness in the support of communities most at risk.

    “In the summer of 2013 we entered the TMED Health Challenge run by the Clinical Translational Research and Innovation Centre (C-TRIC) and pitched our idea. But when Professor Maurice Mulvenna from Ulster University won, he said that our idea was better and gave us the £500 prize and the three months of incubation space at C-TRIC. So the start of Elemental was really down to the generosity of Maurice and the fact that he got social prescribing!”

    Jennifer puts the company’s expansion over the last 12 months “down to founders who understand the challenges surrounding community health, a good board, a great product developed with customers, and being able to access funding from social impact investors to kick-start growth.”

    “This time last year there were three of us. We had five customers when we went out for our first round of funding. These were customers across Northern Ireland and England who were paying money to use the platform and helping us develop its future roadmap at the same time. That gave us traction.

    “We knew that the ‘usual’ angel investors and VCs may not necessarily get social prescribing or health inequalities. We had to target those who would appreciate the importance of social impact because that was at our core, so we approached the ClearlySo social impact investment network. They got it straight away and 43 days after our pitch £300,000 was sitting into our bank account enabling us to make key hires and activate our sales and marketing plan.”

    Jennifer describes it as “a real turbo-boost opportunity [that] lifted our profile to be known as people who not only experienced social prescribing first hand but who understand how to mainstream it.”

    “We had been doing everything ourselves, just Leeann and I and our lead developer, Mark Gowdy. Today Elemental has 11 staff, and is benefitting from a Selective Financial Assistance (SFA) grant from Invest NI to contribute towards the first year of new salaries.

    “Now we have 18 customers across 4 four primary markets. We entered into the Republic of Ireland market last month, and we have projects in Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland, England and expansion into Finland was announced at the start of June.”

    The company has recently been shortlisted in the Best Female-led Angel Investment category of the UK Business Angels Association awards.

    Elemental’s expertise has been recognised near and far. They won a tender from the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan and are helping develop the social prescribing strategy for London that will be launched this autumn. In Dubai the team has helped the government health authority write social prescribing into their health strategy.

    Reflecting on their journey so far, Jennifer is thankful for the influence of good mentors at key points in Elemental’s development. “Find the right one, be choosy about who they are and how their skills align with where you are going. Don’t just take anyone,” she says.

    Jennifer remembers that “Ryan Williams was there for us from the days when Starbucks was our office and we needed to kick the idea around.” Aidan McGrath also advised Elemental in their early days through a programme funded by Derry City Council and pushed the cofounders to work out how to commercialise their idea and create a sustainable business model. He now chairs the board of directors. Mary McKenna (cofounder of Derry-headquartered Learning Pool) joined Elemental’s board in 2017 and guided the team through their first round of funding. Oliver Lennon also joined as part of the 2017 investment round and has helped Elemental to function as an enterprise software company.

    Upon getting the investment, the team were warned that they “were about to go from a rickety roller coaster onto the Oblivion.” (Alton Towers’ Oblivion ride includes a vertical free-fall drop and sharp corners.)

    “At that stage, we wondered how it could be any more full on than it was, but with the market opportunities and the way we’re continually developing the software into something that is both demand-led and something people want to pay for, it’s been nonstop. But we keep each other going and have a fantastic team.”

    Elemental’s gamechanger within the UK market has been its integration with the UK clinical systems provider, EMIS Health, which sits on the desks of most GPs. “With only eight minutes set aside for each patient, GPs told us that they didn’t want to have to switch between two systems when they knew someone would benefit from a social prescription. We invested our time and energy into making it a seamless integration so now GPs can make, manage and view all the social prescription referrals that they’re making. This gives these doctors confidence in social prescribing and means – with Elemental’s help – more will become social prescribing general practices.”

    What’s next for Elemental?

    “When we began, we didn’t realise that social prescribing was going to become so big. There’s not a day goes by now when social prescribing is not referenced in the newspapers and the benefits of non-medical intervention for healthier lives. The Royal College of General Practitioners is calling for every General Practice to be social prescribing. The national policy has caught up!

    “We want to be in every GP practice as the system of choice to make social referrals. And we want to help the voluntary, community and social enterprise sectors demonstrate the impact they are making on the health and social care sector.

    “We are the market leaders in terms of digital social prescribing. But in this game, digital can’t be to the fore; it has to play a very subtle but effective role in the background because face-to-face interaction is the most important thing when you’re trying to help communities reduce a health risk. So we’re supporting the people on the ground, the GPs, link workers and facilitators who are doing great work reducing obesity, loneliness, mental health issues and other conditions.”

    But while the team have three new markets in mind for expansion, Jennifer insists that “Derry will always be our base.”

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