Meet Darren Crombie, CEO and Founder of Bridgit Care, who have developed remote devices to monitor the activities of vulnerable people in their home environment. The tech was originally designed with Darren’s grandfather in mind, to assist the family members caring for him. Bridgit Care also provide support to family carers through a specially designed app, which works to deliver bespoke guidance throughout the caring journey.

Tell us about your innovation – what and why?

I worked in health technology for about 15 years with all kinds of hospital solutions, before moving into a role that looked after a community nurse team in Manchester. One of the things that the team worked on was how you look at a population and stratify it into areas of need. Readmission was one of these areas: how could we use data to figure out which people were going to be admitted back into hospital or have issues in the future? And then looking at how we develop care packages to keep them well and in the community. Through that role, I saw that the family carers that were looking after the patients weren’t receiving the same kind of support that healthcare professionals received. That’s when I thought, there’s a massive opportunity to support that group. At the same time, I was having challenges looking after my own grandfather. That made it personal for me. As well as seeing from a business and an NHS perspective that we had a gap, I also experienced it. So I knew we needed to do something.

About two years ago, we started to look at how we support the unpaid family carer community. There are six and a half million family carers around the UK, and many of them are struggling. They’re thinking all the time about if their loved one is okay when they’re in the home on their own. They may struggle to get consistent advice and support and guidance in their caring role. There are products and services out there that could help, but they may not know where to access them. We’ve been looking at each of those problems. On the first one, which is about looking after somebody remotely, we built a home hub that allows us to know, for example, that my grandfather is up, that he’s moving, that he’s eating and hydrated. It passively collects the information, sends it to the family carer, and then provides advice to help them – so it’s a relatively unintrusive approach. We also thought about supporting them both in the house and outside. That’s when we launched our watch, which is a watch, a phone and a fall alert all in one. They’re supported anywhere and can make a call if they have a fall or experience any issues. We started that two years ago with funding support from SBRI.

And the second problem is about advice and guidance, that’s where we built our carers app: the Ask Bridgit online coach, which features a set of video content designed to support users. We also launched a carer shop, which is a complete eCommerce store where carers can buy the products that can help them in their role. We take intelligence from those remote devices and the app, then use that in the store to promote products that we know will help.

We’ve also just launched a new version of what we do specifically to help hospitals engage family carers and respond to winter pressures, which we’re excited to help carers and the system see the benefit of.

What was the ‘lightbulb’ moment?

I think there were two elements that inspired us. One is the system side. During COVID, according to Carers UK unpaid carers saved the NHS and the public sector £530 million pounds every day. We also found in a study conducted as part of our Phase 1 SBRI project that supporting carers can deliver a 10 to 1 return on government investment, through helping carers to keep their loved ones out of high-cost services.

On the personal side, it was just that I’d been struggling myself and had that lived experience. My grandfather had fallen in the house and had to crawl to the door and shout to get support because he didn’t have his push button around his neck. We wanted to do something about the people that don’t have the right level of support to safely stay in their own homes. Knowing, seeing and learning from family carers, we felt there wasn’t anybody that wraps their arms around family carers from a technology perspective. And that’s why we really want to help them – people like my grandfather Dougie, but also people like my mum, Jacqueline, his primary carer.

What AHSNs are you supported by?

Primarily we were supported by Yorkshire & Humber AHSN. They really helped us from when we came up with the problem statement, ‘how do we support family carers’, to our concepts, through to supporting our phase one and two SBRI funding applications. We received about £700,000 of funding through that route, and that’s really thanks to the Yorkshire & Humber AHSN team. The Health Innovation Network for South London has also been great at giving us feedback on what we’re doing and supporting us. But we’ve spoken to lots of AHSNs over the journey as well.

What’s been your toughest obstacle to date?

Even today, the hardest thing is finding commissioners that can buy our services. Funding often focuses on acute, community and primary care. That’s the biggest challenge, how do we help Integrated Care Systems (ICSs) to understand the priority of supporting family carer services? And then how do we help them to prioritise and commission the right level of support? That’s the big issue for us now. We’re hoping in April, that with the new ICSs being properly legally structured, they’ll be able to purchase the kind of solutions we’ve got. But right now, it’s difficult, because you can go to a local authority, or to NHS organisations and they’ll understand what we’re doing, but there isn’t funding for it.

What are your hopes for the future?

I think there’s been a shift in the public attention on the issues in social care and in-home care, and an understanding that we need to do things differently. It’s going to take a while and in the short term, a lot of funding will keep going to the acute providers. But I see things are changing in terms of what’s commissioned on the ground, so I’m optimistic that this year we’ll see those kinds of green shoots come out. We’ll see some ICSs trying to embrace what we and others are trying to do to help family carers and then we’ll be able to make a bigger impact in terms of supporting the six and a half million people in the UK that need help.

What’s the best part of your job?

I like solving problems. Being able to understand a problem that a client has got and turning it quickly into a solution that actually helps them is what I’m all about. Whether that was before when I was working in hospitals, or working with nurses, or now working for family carers, that’s what I like to do and that’s the best part. The difficult part as a founder is the finances. Running a business, keeping the lights on paying payroll every month, there’s a lot of challenges with a start up as well. But that’s part and parcel of it.

Three pieces of advice for budding innovators?

  1. To be open, I would say are you sure you want to do this? As a startup founder, you’re going to lose friends, you’re going to impact your relationships because you’ve got so much stuff going on. Really think about it. You might look from the outside at a startup and think, oh, it’s quite cool and fun. That was me two and a half years ago, thinking that I could do it better on my own. But it’s super hard and you need to prepare to put the time in. That isn’t to say it isn’t rewarding at the same time.
  2. To reach out and ask for advice. There are organisations like the AHSNs out there that can provide that listening ear. Luckily for us, when we spoke to the Yorkshire & Humber AHSN, they were quite blunt. So, when you talk to them about certain ideas, they’ll tell you if they don’t think it’s going to work or if there aren’t any routes to get commissioned.
  3. Everybody has a great idea and ideas are cheap. Executing them is the hard part. When you’re thinking about the business, think about how you turn that idea into reality? Realistically, what kind of funding and budget do you need to do that? How are you going to get that funding? And then what are the key obstacles you’re going to have to overcome to get commissioned. That’s the big one. Don’t just have an idea, make sure you’ve got a clear plan on how you’re going to translate that into a business.
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