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Meet the innovator

Posted on 26th February

Andrew Jackson is a West of England AHSN innovator and the CEO of ProReal – an immersive virtual world technology platform. Here, he talks about his drive to help young people learn better resilience strategies, and his involvement in our Future Challenges programme….

Name of innovation:  ProReal

Tell us about your innovation – what and why?

We have developed an avatar software – it helps people to express difficult thoughts and feelings. It uses virtual world technology to help people visualise their issues, to label emotions and see things from different perspectives.

What was the ‘lightbulb’ moment?

A few years ago, a client of ours asked why reflective practice and coaching conversations needed to happen face-to-face. That single question started our quest to find alternatives.

What’s been your innovator journey highlight to date?

We have had great support from the NHS generally. We won Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI Healthcare) funding, which helped us to start our evidence collection. The NIHR MindTech team have been hugely supportive, helping us to navigate the complexity and connecting us to clinicians and researchers. We are part of NHS England’s Global Digital Exemplar programme, and that means Trusts can learn from each other. More recently, the West of England AHSN has helped us to explore the area of young people’s mental resilience by working across different boundaries – school, council, health and evaluation – as part of its Future Challenges programme. The pilot project, named MiHUB, equips young people to understand and express their own complex emotions around particular problems they may be facing. I’ve been impressed with the way the AHSN has joined the dots – working across education, evaluation, health and industry is not easy, but we have much more in common than we first realised.

What’s been your toughest obstacle to date?

In the last few weeks, a senior NHS leader described many of our mental health services as being “on their knees”. Years of underfunding make the adoption of innovation very challenging, and that affects patients, clinicians and innovators like ourselves.

Hopes for the future?

Imagine a future when young people learn resilience at home, at school and online, learning better strategies for dealing with life’s challenges and doing so in fun and engaging ways. And NHS clinicians having different technologies to choose from to help them to provide care to the many, at scale.

A typical day for you would include…

Lockdown brings a certain rhythm – often delving into research in the quiet of a morning, before chatting online with our team about our customers and projects.  Most days include meetings with NHS Trust teams – finding ways to work through the adoption barriers. It can be hard work sometimes, but we’re always in awe of the sense of purpose and compassion – despite the hurdles.

Best part of your job now?

The highlight of my day is when someone tells us how ProReal has really helped someone make progress. Last week, one clinician shared a story which estimated several months taken out of a treatment pathway, simply because they were able to name the main problem and see life through someone else’s eyes.

What three bits of advice would you give budding innovators?

Oh, I’d ask questions rather than give advice. Can you find the sweet spot of what is needed, what you’re good at and love doing, and what people will pay for? How clear are you on your own motivation and purpose? An accountant once told me that starting a company is like bringing a child into the world, and that metaphor can be helpful sometimes.

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