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SBRI Healthcare awards £2.4 million to progress innovations that support autistic people and people with a learning disability

31 January 2024

SBRI Healthcare, an Accelerated Access Collaborative initiative, in partnership with the Health Innovation Network and Autistica, has awarded £2.4m for the progression of five innovations that support autistic people and people with a learning disability.

Between 1.1 million and 1.4 million people in England are estimated to have a learning disability but only approximately 280,000 of those have a learning disability recorded in their primary care record.

Approximately 650,000 people in England are recorded as being autistic in their NHS primary care record but it is estimated that between 1 million and 1.6 million people in England could be autistic. Many people have both a learning disability and are autistic. There has been a rise in referrals for autism assessment, with systems under pressure to meet demand, and significant health inequalities can impact access to the right support.

Alongside progress being made by the NHS Long Term Plan, NHS England’s Transforming Care Programme, and the Core20PLUS5 initiative, the new funding accelerates change, using the best of cross-sector collaboration and technical expertise.

SBRI Healthcare launched Competition 20- Autism and Learning Disability in May 2022 specifically seeking innovations to help with early identification and diagnosis and equal access to effective support and care.

The innovations include virtual reality to help autistic people and people with a learning disability to overcome anxiety, a digital tool to help neurodivergent children undergoing healthcare procedures, and a digital system to allow people with a learning disability and their carers to be more involved in annual health checks.

Ten projects were initially awarded phase 1 funding of £900,000 collectively for six months to demonstrate technical and commercial viability, and this second phase of the competition now enables 12 months of development and prototype evaluation prior to real-world implementation.

Professor Wendy Tindale (Panel Chair), Director, NIHR Devices for Dignity MIC; Scientific & Innovation Director at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals, said:

“The SBRI Healthcare awards help NHS England develop new innovations to address unmet health and social care needs. Support for autistic people and individuals with a learning disability is a top priority in the NHS Long Term Plan. Through new technology and creative, collaborative approaches, these evidence-led, high-impact innovations aim to improve lives and health outcomes and narrow inequalities.”

Verena Stocker, Interim Director of Innovation, Research, Life Sciences and Strategy, NHS England and Chief Executive Officer, Accelerated Access Collaborative, said:

“The SBRI Healthcare awards help the NHS to develop new technologies and solutions to address some of the biggest healthcare challenges facing society. Our learning disability and autism demand signalling report outlines the research questions and innovation challenges to be addressed, and we have selected these innovations because they have the potential to make a big difference to patients by helping to reduce healthcare inequalities in those communities most affected. By supporting the most promising innovations the NHS will continue to evolve, helping to meet more patients’ needs and encouraging more innovators to come forward with innovative ideas that benefit all.”

The SBRI Healthcare ‘Competition 20 – Autism and Learning Disability’, Phase 2 awarded projects are:

Maldaba - awarded £498,754 - Annual Health Checks

The project aims to make it easier for people with a learning disability and their carers to receive the standard of care they deserve by setting up a digital system allowing them to be more fully involved in their annual health checks and health improvement. The web based system allows primary care staff to manage the annual health check and Health Action Plan cycle; searching the practice Learning Disability register, issuing pre-annual health check questionnaires in the format requested, progress-tracking, co-creating, sharing and tracking progress of health action plans with patients/families/carers. Patients can see and track their activities throughout the year and can review progress with GPs and community care staff in-between yearly appointments, supporting ongoing health improvement.

XR Therapeutics Ltd - awarded £499,230 - Providing a more accessible mental health intervention for autistic individuals and individuals with a learning disability

XR Therapeutics uses virtual reality technologies combined with clinically evaluated approaches to support mental health conditions of autistic people and people with a learning disability. The virtual reality technology can be deployed across multiple interfaces. This project will be focusing on our studio approach – an immersive space where clinician and client sit next to one another in front of a 180 degree screen that displays life-like scenes, slowly exposing the client to their anxiety trigger(s).

Mid and South Essex NHS Foundation Trust and oVRcome - awarded £438,789 - Supporting patients with a learning disability and autistic patients to 'overcome' healthcare-related phobias and anxiety in their own homes

Mid and South Essex NHS Foundation Trust, in collaboration with oVRcome, are developing a Virtual Reality (VR) programme to support autistic people and people with a learning disability to overcome anxieties and phobias around healthcare situations, helping patients prepare for interactions with healthcare services, using VR Exposure Therapy.

Little Journey – awarded £493,260 - Development and evaluation of an accessible digital psycho-education support tool for neurodivergent children undergoing healthcare procedures

Little Journey is a psychological preparation and support tool designed to remotely support children and their parents undergoing a variety of healthcare procedures. It does this through a range of interactive, and age-tailored features including virtual tours, therapeutic games, relaxation guides, and information articles, all from the comfort of their own home. This project enhances the Little Journey solution to better support children and evaluate its cost and clinical effectiveness. The application is rapidly scalable to support children through new procedures and in a variety of languages. It is configurable to local hospital patient pathways through a web portal.

UNEEG medical Ltd - awarded £491,099 - Tolerability and acceptability of subcutaneous EEG monitoring in people with epilepsy and intellectual disability

A medical device for continuous monitoring of brain waves enabling objective optimisation of epilepsy management based on the health of the brain. A small chip with a wire is fully implanted underneath the skin behind the ear in a minimally invasive procedure to record the brain waves of the user while she or he lives their everyday life. An AI algorithm interprets the recordings and shows relevant patterns to the user’s neurologist based on which the neurologist can improve the medication.

Data sources
HCPLD dataset 2022, Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, Approach to a school age child with suspected learning disability, BMJ, 2022, People with a learning disability, autism or both, NHS England and NHS Improvement, 2019, Mental Health Services Monthly Statistics Performance November, Provisional December 2020, NHS Digital, 2020, Prevalence of disorders of the autism spectrum in a population cohort of children in South Thames: the Special Needs and Autism Project (SNAP) - PubMed (

About SBRI Healthcare
SBRI (Small Business Research Initiative) Healthcare provides funding and support to innovators to develop solutions that tackle existing unmet needs faced by the NHS. The programme aims to improve patient care, increase efficiency in the NHS, and support the UK economy. The programme provides funding and support to early-stage projects enabling testing for business feasibility and technology development, as well as to more mature products to support real world implementation studies. SBRI Healthcare is funded by the Accelerated Access Collaborative and delivered in partnership with the Health Innovation Network.

About the Accelerated Access Collaborative
The Accelerated Access Collaborative is a unique partnership between patient groups, government bodies, industry and the NHS. It delivers ambitious programmes to ensure the NHS is in the best place to improve patient outcomes and reduce health inequalities through research and innovation. It does this by identifying the best new medicines, medical devices, diagnostics and digital products. It supports providers and integrated care systems to make them available to patients as quickly as possible. In addition, the AAC supports increasing participation in research and access to research trials. Over 1.6 million patients have benefited from its programmes to date, helping patients spend over 278,000 fewer days in hospital and saving the NHS over £185 million.

About the Health Innovation Network
There are 15 health innovation networks across England, established by NHS England in 2013 to spread innovation at pace and scale – improving health and generating economic growth. Each health innovation network works across a distinct geography serving a different population in each region. As the only bodies that connect NHS and academic organisations, local authorities, the third sector and industry, health innovation networks are catalysts that create the right conditions to facilitate change across whole health and social care economies, with a clear focus on improving outcomes for patients.

About Autistica
Autistica is the UK's leading autism research and campaigning charity. Their vision is a world where every autistic person lives a happy, healthy, long life. Autistica provides practical solutions to big problems. From research through to service design and information campaigns, they work in partnership with autistic people, the government, NHS, and others to make change happen. Autistica has committed to creating a more enabling world by 2030. Through their 2030 Goals they will create effective health and social care, meaningful employment, accessible public spaces, and inclusive attitudes. Autistica’s goals are: By 2030 all autistic people will have proven support from day one; By 2030 the employment rate for autistic people will double; By 2030 autistic people will have proven treatments for anxiety; By 2030 public spaces will be more accessible for neurodivergent people; By 2030 every autistic adult will be offered a yearly, tailored health check; By 2030 attitudes to autistic people will change

About the NHS England Learning Disability and Autism Programme
In 2019, The NHS Long Term Plan committed to enabling people with a learning disability and autistic people to live happier, healthier, and longer lives. In response, NHS England formed their first National Autism Team within the pre-existing Learning Disability and Autism Programme to drive further improvements in the health outcomes of autistic people and people with a learning disability. The National Learning Disability and Autism Programme works to reduce health inequalities experienced by people with a learning disability and autistic people by, for example, improving access to diagnoses and healthcare, increasing the use and quality of reasonable adjustments and increasing the quality, efficiency and effectiveness of healthcare provided. Some examples of this work include offering an annual health check for people with a learning disability, the piloting of an autism annual health check, conducting Learning from lives and deaths of people with a learning disability and autistic people (LeDeR) reviews and improving the quality of inpatient mental health care.


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